DC Charter Schools Not Alone in Facing SPED Controversy

150 150 DC Special Education Cooperative

DC Charter Schools Not Alone in Facing SPED Controversy
By Laura Updyke

October 29, 2009
DC charter schools are not the only ones under pressure to change how they serve students with disabilities.  According to the Denver Post, only 2 of the 7,000 students enrolled in charter schools in that city have severe disabilities.  Public school officials in Denver are seeking to change that equation by emphasizing inclusion plans in new charter school applications and holding existing charter schools accountable for the progress made by students with disabilities as part of the charter renewal process.

Sound familiar? It should since it mirrors the debate that has been ongoing in DC over who is admitted to DC charter schools and how they are served once there.  And, with push from parents and OSSE officials, it is not a debate that is going away. Nor should it, since charter schools are public schools.

However, many believe they are not ready.  In a survey conducted last spring by the Co-op and Phillips Program for Children and Families, only 8% of those queried considered DC Charters equipped to meet the education needs of special education children, with 40% stating DC Charters are not equipped at all and 52% believing they may be equipped.  The numbers are even more dramatic when respondents were asked whether charter schools have the capacity to serve students with complex emotional and behavioral needs all inclusively.  Here, 61% stated they were not equipped, only 9% stated yes, and 30% thought “maybe” — with needed supports like training, resources and funding.  Resources and money appear to be the perceived the key to many of these problems.

Without an entire school system behind them, individual charter schools find can find it difficult to provide the intensive and costly services these students require. Especially challenging is providing the full spectrum of options demanded under Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), including self-contained classrooms.  In Denver, there is a movement toward having center-based programs within charter schools.  This is a model that could be adapted to work here, with charter schools coming together to create as a group the services they cannot easily afford on their own.

The Co-op has been exploring with PHILLIPS and others the creation of a SPED Satellite Classroom, where students from different charter schools could be taught together, pooling resources to create a strong program for those students requiring a smaller, more supportive classroom environment.  This is the kind of innovation and cooperation that will help DC charter schools to provide appropriate and high quality services to many more students with disabilities.