As the director of special education at the DREAM Charter School, Jacqueline Frey knows firsthand the difficulties charter schools face when serving students with disabilities.
One issue, she said, is convincing the city that her school’s plan to serve each disabled student is sound.
And when she wants to bring her teachers up to date on the best ways to serve students with disabilities, she has to figure out how to compensate for the training that pricey consultants might be able to offer.
“If I’m a mom and pop charter school, I can’t afford to do that for myself,” Frey said. “It helps to find other schools in the same situation.”
Connecting charter schools with similar special education needs is the chief goal of the New York City Charter School Center’s Special Education Collaborative, which builds off of local efforts to boost special education at charter schools that have been going in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn since 2007. The $1,500-per-school entry fee pays for monthly training sessions, access to counselors and consultants, and an annual conference.
The citywide collaborative, which about 90 of the city’s 136 charter schools have already joined, comes at an opportune time. Both of the state’s charter school authorizers, the State University of New York and the Board of Regents, are pushing new charter schools to build capacity for more higher-needs students, including more special education students, this year, into their school designs. And at the collaborative’s first conference last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE would be pressing charter schools to “up the ante” in how they serve special education students.
The pushes are in part a response to criticism that charter schools do not enroll a fair share of special needs students. In recent years, the proportion of students with disabilities at charter schools has actually risen to nearly the city average. The challenge now, advocates say, is to serve disabled students well.
One obstacle, they say, is the very lack of bureaucracy that is often cited as charter schools’ greatest efficiency. Where district schools are situated in networks that can provide support and training for special education teachers, charter schools are on their own.
“The DOE has really grown their charter school office, but around special education it’s still a big question,” said Dixon Deutsch, the collaborative’s director.
The former director of special education for the Achievement First charter network, Deutsch said he has seen how charter schools operating on their own sometimes struggle to teach disabled students. When Achievement First schools were just starting out, they had only a handful of special education teachers on staff.
“I realized that we were doing a disservice to the kids and families that we were working with,” he said. “Kids were leaving our system and we didn’t really have the staffing or knowledge to figure out how to serve this particular population.”
By the time the network had grown to 10 schools in two states, he said, it had 60 special education instructors,giving the teachers a larger set of professional resources and colleagues to draw on.
The collaborative aims to replicate that growth, especially for schools whose leaders aren’t shooting to franchise, Deutsch said.
“The role this collaboration can really play is to bring different experts from the field together to learn from each other, to network, to see classrooms in action, to see principals in action, to make sure folks are coming together to improve special education,” he said.
More than 150 people attended last month’s conference, which featured seminars on classroom management, teaching literacy, and responding to behavior problems, among other topics. The training was geared toward filling in the gaps in support teachers are receiving from their principals and DOE officials, Deutsch said.
In one seminar, teachers and counselors from a number of city charter schools workshopped potential responses to students’ behavioral issues. One teacher asked the group what she should do when one of her students paces around the classroom to avoid doing schoolwork. The seminar leader, Elizabeth Fong, a therapist, suggested creating a new consequence for the student for doing his work that is more desirable than the pacing—an “avoidance behavior,” that was allowing the student to skip assignments.
Kim Madden, director of legal services at Advocates for Children, an advocacy organization for students with disabilities, cautioned that extra training is no substitute for adding more teachers who are certified in addressing a broad range of disabilities.
“There’s a huge spectrum of disabilities, so a student who needs something more intensive than something that can be done as an add-on to general ed is sometimes a challenge for charter schools,” she said.
But Madden said any effort to serve students with special needs better is a positive step for the city’s charter schools.
“Historically we have seen that charter schools have not served the students with greater needs, so I think it’s great that the schools are making an effort,” she said. “Certainly there’s a lot of room for improvement, in both charter schools and the DOE.”