fuel for debate

Report: District-charter special ed gap not from "counseling out"

photoStories of charter school officials telling — or hinting to — high-needs students that they should look elsewhere for their educational needs have long fueled criticism of the charter sector. But a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education argues that “counseling out” is not the cause of the special education gap between the city’s district and charter elementary schools.

In New York City, 13.1 percent of charter school students receive special education services, compared to 16.5 percent of district school students. Using lottery data from 25 charter elementary schools and information from the city, researcher Marcus Winters found two main reasons for the gap: that fewer students with disabilities apply for kindergarten spots at charter schools, and charters classify fewer students as needing special education services once they start school.

The report was not mean to “fully explain away what is a well-documented disparity,” New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said at a discussion at the center on Monday.

“What it does do, importantly, is demonstrate conclusively that a significant number of charter schools in New York City are having success in keeping children from inappropriately being classified in the first place as needing special education services and at the same time, hopefully giving them a far better chance at success in their school careers,” Merriman said.

The report will be a boon for charter school advocates, many of whom attended the discussion. It also reaffirms positions that Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute, has taken before about how students with disabilities are not denied access to charter schools.

The data have some significant limitations. Only 25 charter elementary schools provided their lottery and retention information, and most are a part of charter networks, including Achievement First, Explore, Girls Prep, Success Academy, Icahn, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools. That means the report does little to illustrate what’s happening at the city’s many independent charter schools, and since schools had to volunteer their data, any schools actively counseling students out would presumably have declined to participate.

And not everyone is convinced that counseling out is an insignificant factor in the special education gap. Paulina Davis of the Charter Schools Initiative at Advocates for Children of New York said she regularly helps families who call the organization’s helpline looking for information about their children’s rights.

“My work has been busy here,” she said. “While some charter schools do make an effort to work with parents of students with disabilities, we do still get a number of calls from parents who will say, a charter school said we don’t think we’re a good fit for your child.”

In 2010, state legislators tried to address the enrollment disparities by requiring charter schools to register high-needs students at a rate “comparable” to that of their local school district. But when the state proposed a methodology to calculate those enrollment targets, some charter leaders objected, saying that it would remove incentives for schools to help students enough so that they no longer require special education services.

Those sentiments were echoed in Winters’ report, which shows that charter schools declassify special education students at higher rates than district schools — leading to unfair comparisons, charter leaders said. Winters’ report also unpacks the diversity of the special needs classification, showing that for the most severe categories of special needs, the district-charter gap doesn’t grow much from kindergarten to fifth grade. That gap is composed almost solely of students with the least severe category of specific learning disabilities, who Winters said were “heavily over-identified” in district schools.

Also at play in creating the gap are charter schools’ enrollment policies. Special education students in all kinds of schools are statistically more likely than other students to leave the school they’re at, regardless of type, which Winters called “natural mobility.” But students who leave a charter school are much more likely to end up in a district school, since few charter schools take students mid-year or take many students in the older elementary grades.

Some elementary schools, such as DREAM Charter School in Harlem, are enrolling high proportions of special education students. At the discussion, DREAM’s director of special education, Jacqueline Frey, said her school has 24 percent special education students thanks to a range of programs that attract families of students with special needs.

That effort is what Davis says is still missing in some parts of the charter sector. “I too agree that we don’t know what parents are being told,” she said. “We do know that there hasn’t been much growth in as diverse array of services offered at charter schools for students with disabilities.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”