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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.