suit up

Success Academy parents accuse New York City of denying, delaying special education services in new lawsuit

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students in a Success Academy classroom in 2017.

The New York City education department is accused of routinely delaying and denying special education services to Success Academy students in the Bronx, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court by parents whose children attend the charter network.

The six families claim their children’s rights to an appropriate education are being violated and are asking the city to follow federal and state law regarding special education services.

“This is a systemic issue,” said Aaron Safane, an attorney with Success Academy who is leading the case. “You would expect our special education numbers to look pretty similar to [Department of Education] schools, and they’re just drastically different.”

The suit paints a picture of a network fighting for services for its students with disabilities, in stark contrast to complaints some critics have leveled against Success. The network has been accused of suspending and even pushing out students who have special needs in an attempt to improve test scores, allegations the network has denied. About 17 percent of students at Success have a disability, according to the network — almost on-par with all city schools.

The suit also sets the network’s famously challenging approach to teaching and learning at the center of its clash with the city. The education department believes that Success Academy students are referred for special education because the network’s “standards are too high, and that special education services would be wasted on many Success Academy students,” according to the suit, resulting in disproportionate denials.

In response to questions about the suit, education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city would review the complaint but did not directly address any of the allegations.

“Collaboration is at the core of our approach to partnering with charter schools to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities are met,” Holness wrote in an email. “We’ll continue to work with Success Academy to ensure that charter schools and families, alongside the DOE, are working together to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services.”

Only 3 percent of Success Academy students in the Bronx had their requests for special education services considered within the required timeframe — compared with 66 percent of district students, according to the suit. Success Academy students in the Bronx wait an average of 162 days for their requests for special education services to be determined, according to the suit, even though a determination is supposed to be made within 60 days of receiving parental consent for an evaluation. One Success Academy student waited 653 days.

Success Academy students are also far less likely to be approved for special education services: Only 40 percent receive additional supports, compared with 80 percent of district students.

An arm of the education department called the Committees on Special Education are responsible for determining whether students in private and charter schools should receive special education services, such as speech therapy or a smaller class setting. The suit targets the committee that coordinates services for schools in three districts across the Bronx, including six Success Academy schools.

One Success Academy student was initially denied services despite his mother’s concerns that he had dyslexia. Almost two school years passed, more than 500 days, before a second referral for special education was approved for the kindergartner. In the meantime, he had to repeat a grade, the suit charges.

The network accuses the education department of dragging out the process by requiring its own consent forms, stalling on inputting requests into the city’s tracking system, and scheduling meetings at times that are inconvenient for parents.

Charter schools are often accused of not serving the same proportion of students with special needs as district schools, but the New York City Charter School Center estimates that the percentage of students with disabilities in charter schools grew to 17 percent in 2016-17 — compared with about 20 percent across all city schools that year.

gates grants

In latest move, Gates Foundation looks to help — and learn from — charters serving students with disabilities

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s new charter school strategy is taking shape.

The foundation has made four grants in recent months focused on helping charter schools better serve students with disabilities. That’s one of the ways Bill Gates said last fall that the influential foundation would focus its education giving over the next five years, along with efforts to grow networks of schools and improve curriculum. (The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The foundation hasn’t made a public announcement of the new investments, but its website lists four groups that have been awarded money for the work.

Last month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was granted nearly $1.2 million “to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools got $300,000 “to support national charter policy-advocacy on growth, quality and special education integration.” And the National Center for Learning Disabilities netted $700,000 “to help build an evidence base for supporting students with disabilities.”

In July, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington, won more than $1.2 million “to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.”

The four grants amount to a relatively modest total of about $3.4 million. Gates, the biggest philanthropic funder of education in the country, said last year that the foundation planned to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years on U.S. education, about 15 percent of which would go to charter school efforts.

“We are investing in charters initially for this work because we believe they have the autonomy and flexibility to innovate; and because we acknowledge that research shows that historically charter schools have underserved students with disabilities, in terms of numbers and levels of support,” Gates deputy director Don Shalvey said in a statement.

A 2013 national study showed that 8 percent of charter school students qualified for special education services, but 11 percent of students in nearby district schools did. It’s not entirely clear why the difference exists; critics argue that charter schools are more likely to push needy students out or not enroll them in the first place, while some charter officials say it reflects their decision not to unnecessarily label students who need extra academic help.

One New York City-focused study found that the special education gap in elementary school was because fewer disabled students applied to charters and fewer charter students were classified as disabled, not because special education students left charters at a higher rate. Nationally, charter schools suspend students with disabilities more frequently than traditional public schools. Other research on this question is fairly limited.

Shalvey said the goal of the grants is to review “what has worked in the past,” including in charter schools that are successfully serving students with disabilities, and “produce the knowledge that will help us scale beyond the initial group of charter schools.” Additional grants will be announced in the coming months, according to the foundation.

Gates has given money to other charter school efforts in recent months as well: The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition netted nearly $530,000, and the foundation is spending $9.8 million to help construct a Green Dot charter high school in south Seattle. The City Fund, a new group founded by a collection of education leaders who support the “portfolio model,” received $10 million for work in Oakland; in other cities, this approach has meant the expansion of charter schools.

Outside of charter schools, Gates has made a number of $90,000 grants to help school districts with college advising.

Charter Schools

Four of five charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Supporters of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) wanted Shelby County Schools to approve opening an elementary school under the charter organization.

Four charter schools whose applications were rejected by Shelby County Schools are taking their cases to the state.

The appeals are the most since 2015, when the State Board of Education first sided with a charter school in its appeal against a local school board. Two years ago, the same happened in Memphis.

The charter schools appealing to the state board are:

  • Avodah International is a new local charter organization that wanted to open Blueprint Adovah High School in South City that would partner with local companies to prepare students for various careers.
  • Memphis-based Capstone Education Group sought to open a middle school, its first school under Shelby County Schools. It operates three others in Memphis under the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken over about two dozen city schools and handed them over to charters.
  • Aspire Public Schools, which started in 1998 in California, wanted to create a middle school in Raleigh to explicitly “distinguish” the charter’s existing middle school program from its elementary. The application harkens back to a tiff between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its school under the Achievement School District.
  • Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the first to open a charter school in Memphis, wanted to add an elementary program to its middle and high school, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE).

The remaining charter organization the local school board denied, California-based Green Dot Public Schools, did not appeal to the state by the deadline Friday. Green Dot was the charter network that had successfully appealed to the state previously, making Bluff City High School the first in Tennessee to open under the State Board of Education.

Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot’s spokeswoman, said the charter network decided “to continue to refine our elementary model according to the feedback given and then re-submit our application to Shelby County Schools next year.”

If any of the appeals are successful, Shelby County Schools would have 30 days to decide whether or not they will accept the decision and retain local control. If the district or charter school refuses, the State Board of Education will oversee the charter school.

Shelby County Schools leaders said the recently rejected charter networks that currently operate under the Achievement School District “have yet to demonstrate consistent strong performance over a sufficient time period with the Memphis schools currently in their network.”

When the district used that argument to deny Green Dot’s application for its high school, the state board said the organization’s track record in California and Memphis “more than surpassed academic expectations.”

But since then, Vanderbilt University researchers said schools in the state-run district are no better off than low-performing schools that got no help from the state.

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis. Three of its schools are under the Achievement School District, while one elementary is authorized by Shelby County Schools.

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

In its state-run schools, less than 12 percent of students scored on grade level in math and science. But middle school students in Aspire are improving faster than their peers across the state, which earned them mostly high marks on the state’s measure of student growth on tests.

Nickalous Manning, Aspire’s new Memphis superintendent, said approving their application would not be adding a new school, but merely making its middle school program official since Tennessee’s attorney general said the state-run school could not tack grades onto its existing elementary school.

“While we have only served the Memphis community for the last five years, growing from initially two schools to now four schools, our most recent Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores demonstrates strong performance,” Manning said in his appeal letter.

Capstone Education Group

Capstone operates Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School and Lester Prep Middle School in Binghampton, as well as Cornerstone Denver Elementary School in Frayser. Lester Prep Middle performed well enough on state tests in the 2016-17 school year to exit the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools, but is still being closely monitored by the state to make sure they continue to improve.

The two elementary schools — which are still among the worst performing in the state — were two of the highest performers in the Achievement School District this year in math, but both struggled in English.

The charter network’s leaders argued Shelby County Schools “created an inaccurate picture” of the organization’s track record because the district omitted results from the most recent state test.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation

Rodrick Gaston, the executive director of Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering, said there is a need for more elementary schools that will keep students on track. His school has had high marks from the state on student improvement, but he wants to educate those students earlier so they don’t fall behind in the first place.

“By founding MASE Elementary School, we will reach younger students with a robust STEM curriculum, and cultivate a love of learning and high levels of achievement ​before​ they fall behind, thereby ​preventing​ an achievement gap,” he said. “Denying this opportunity means students will continue to enter MASE in sixth grade performing years below grade level, facing an achievement gap they might narrow but not close.”

District leaders lauded the charter school’s recent growth, but said there needed to be more consistent results before they would approve opening another school.

Avodah International

For the new charter organization, Avodah International, Shelby County Schools recommended the school board deny it because there were “still significant unaddressed concerns throughout the application,” after revisions. For example, the school’s budget for its planning year depended on “unsecured funds with no contingency plan.”

The school planned to use a “Big Picture Learning” model for teaching students primarily through projects and internships is also used at a Nashville charter school that has seen some success, according to a letter to the state from Alexis Gwin-Miller, Avodah’s lead founder.

Shelby County Schools commended the academic model but said the application lacked clarity in how students would be graded and how the school would seek to keep families engaged as they adjust to the new model.

The recent wave of nine application approvals, including six in buildings now occupied by the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, would bring the total number of charter schools under the Memphis district to 63, far and away the most in the state.

The State Board of Education is working to schedule when it will hear the charter organization’s arguments in Memphis and plans to make a determination at its Oct. 19 meeting.

You can read the full appeal letters from each of the Memphis charter organizations below.

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.