3 Strategies for Choosing a Charter School When Your Child Has a Disability

With more than 60 charter schools on over 100 campuses, Washington, DC’s parents have many public school choices. For parents of children with disabilities, those choices aren’t always easy to make. All charter schools are public schools and are required by law to provide special education for eligible students, but how can you tell which programs are high quality?

The Co-op spends a lot of time in schools and with teachers, and we have found one thing to be true – it’s hard to have a high quality special education program without a strong general education foundation. Here are our 3 strategies for choosing a charter school:

1) Look for a school that you and your child like:

Find a school that speaks to you and your child. Each charter school has a unique mission and vision. Some have very a specific curricular focus like arts, technology, or language immersion. Others have programs that focus on expeditionary learning or college prep. These programs are for all children enrolled in the school, including those with disabilities, so you want to find one that’s a good fit.

Is It A Good Fit? Think about the whole child experience –

  • What does your child like to do?
  • What’s his learning style?
  • What does he respond to?
  • Are there clubs or sports teams that your child cares about?

Read school profiles, call and ask about the school’s community activities, teams, and curriculum focus.

2) Look for a school that is academically rigorous and has a plan to make sure every child has access to the rigorous core curriculum:

If a school’s program isn’t academically rigorous in general, then it’s not likely to be rigorous for a student with a disability. The foundation of a strong curriculum and well-prepared teachers is something to look for in a charter.

Is It A Good Fit? It’s more than test scores! While standardized test scores like the PARCC matter and are a place to start, they don’t tell the whole story. You want a school where students are taught to grapple with information, challenge their thinking, be creative, and learn about themselves as learners. Some signs of a rigorous, inclusive program:

  • Lower student/teacher ratios and co-taught classrooms with both a general and special education teacher collaborating.
  • Ongoing professional development and training for general education teachers on providing access to the core curriculum for students with disabilities.
  • Administrators who can explicitly tell you how ALL students have access to the core curriculum.
  • A continuum of services in place that allows students to get the support they need while maintaining access to the core curriculum.
  • Use of evidence-based interventions for students with disabilities (reading programs, math programs, etc.)
  • Collaboration, team approach to teaching and learning – specialists including Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Counselors, etc. are meeting with teachers and therapy is integrated into classroom activities when appropriate.

3) Look for a school that has an inclusive culture of acceptance and respect:

When students feel like a part of a community and have a strong sense of belonging, they are much more open to learning. While every school is required to provide special education, how special education is perceived by the administration, staff, and school community can vary greatly. DC schools have come a long way in their understanding and ability to serve students with disabilities.

Is It A Good Fit? Visit the school, talk to staff, and look for these signs:

  • Administrators can talk intelligently about special education, they have foundational knowledge of special education laws and the rights of students with disabilities. They value having students with disabilities in their schools and they are vocal about it!
  • There’s an inclusive culture. The school philosophy includes language about all students. The behavioral norms and shared-beliefs about disability and differences are positive. For example, adults in the community use person-first language and welcome opportunities to discuss differences with students.
  • Parents are supported. The school offers training or support groups for parents of students with disabilities or can connect parents with outside resources.
  • The school has a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) plan that all staff use – a school wide system for positive discipline, and developmentally appropriate responses to classroom behaviors.

Resources for parents