This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Education Law Center has filed a suit against the Mathematics, Civics & Sciences Charter School (MCSCS) on behalf of a parent who believes her child was illegally denied admission based on her disability.
Georgette Hand, parent of a 1st grader who previously attended Pennypacker Elementary, contends that MCSCS founder Veronica Joyner denied her daughter entry after learning that the child has an Individual Education Program (IEP) calling for emotional support.
The suit was filed on the same day that the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on renewing the MCSCS charter, with conditions.
At the heart of the suit is a meeting between Joyner and Hand, in which Hand alleges that Joyner rejected the student’s admission while the student – referred to in the suit as “D.W.” – sat quietly and listened.
“When they left,” the suit alleges, “D.W. asked her mother why Ms. Joyner did not want her to attend the charter school.”
Joyner said the suit, filed Thursday in Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas, is the result of a “misunderstanding.” She said she recalls meeting the parent and student, but all they discussed were the student’s problems at her District-run school.
Joyner said she didn’t know at the time that the student had been enrolled at MCSCS, despite the parent having a letter of admission that Joyner had signed.
“I sign hundreds of letters over the summer,” said Joyner, who also said that she does not recall discussing the child’s IEP.
“I didn’t read it,” said Joyner. “I couldn’t have read it. I had two cataract surgeries last summer.”
Joyner apologized for any confusion and said that the student is welcome to enroll at MCSCS as soon as possible.
“I will be happy to take this child,” she said.
The suit describes a meeting in July between MCSCS staff, Hand, and D.W., in which, Hand alleges, Joyner told the parent explicitly that MCSCS could not provide D.W. with the required supports in her IEP.
“Ms. Joyner met with G.H. and D.W. and told them that D.W. could not enroll in the Charter School because she had an IEP for an emotional disability,” the suit alleges. “[Joyner] told G.H. that the Charter School did not have the class or teacher to provide the services required by her IEP.”
The suit also contends that the school’s low percentage of students with IEPs – 6% – makes it an outlier among charter schools, citing the Education Law Center’s own recent study on educational equity.
“None of the charter schools analyzed in this study reported a percentage of students with IEPs below 10 percent,” ELC’s suit says. District data in the renewal report for MCSCS show that the school has consistently trailed District and charter schools in terms of enrolling special education students. About 14% of District students have IEPs, and about 18% of charter school students.
Joyner denies any bias against special education students, noting that the school has about 40 students with IEPs. But she acknowledged that it would be difficult for MCSCS to provide the kind of intensive support that some IEPs call for.
Hand and ELC are asking the courts to allow D.W. to enroll in the school immediately and require the school to “implement a new policy to effectuate the inclusion of students with disabilities through changes to the charter school’s application and enrollment process, instructional programming, access to extracurricular activities and all other school programming.”
Joyner’s charter is up for a renewal vote tonight, but she said she is not concerned that the lawsuit might affect the Board of Education’s decision. However, she said, some of the Charter Schools Office’s proposed conditions for the renewal involve changes to the school’s special education policies. MCSCS signed a renewal agreement with conditions earlier this week, Joyner said, but District officials were in touch as recently as today to discuss the details of those conditions, including the special education provisions.
She reiterated that D.W. is welcome at her school.
“I’ll be happy to accept this child,” she said. “I’m not going to put my name on something and then go back on it.”
UPDATE with further comment from ELC:
ELC staff attorney Margie Wakelin said, “Ms. Joyner’s claim of a misunderstanding is difficult to swallow,” because the only reason that Hand was at the school on July 22 was to enroll her daughter subsequent to receiving an acceptance letter. “However … she left that day believing that her daughter could not attend, because she has an IEP due to her diagnosis of ADHD. The fact that ‘misunderstandings’ like this can occur only speaks more to the need for clear policies for inclusion of children with disabilities at MCSCS.”
She added that although she is happy that Joyner is agreeing to admit the girl, no one from the school has been in contact with the family or attorneys. After five weeks of attempts to negotiate through emails and phone calls, “unfortunately … it took a lawsuit and media pressure to get a response. We hope they follow through” on this case and in ensuring that children with disabilities “are fully included” at the charter school.