suit up

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

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
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.

Charter unions

Teachers at 4 Chicago International Charter Schools threaten Feb. 5 strike

Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Unless they reach a compromise with their network bosses, teachers at four Chicago International Charter Schools will strike on Feb. 5. The teachers announced the strike date Thursday morning in response to a months-long stalemate over bargaining.

The union is demanding increased pay and benefits for both teachers and paraprofessionals, smaller class sizes, more resources for classrooms and more counseling and social work staff. Last fall, 96 percent of Chicago International’s 138 unionized educators voted to authorize a strike.

“We need to reduce staff turnover and increase stability of our schools because it creates an environment in which students can thrive and learn,” said Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown and a union chair for negotiating members. “Compensation and benefits are key elements to reducing staff turnover.”

Chicago International is the umbrella organization for 14 schools run by a handful of management companies. Educators and some paraprofessionals at four of those schools are unionized — one run by Chicago Quest and another three by Civitas Education Partners. The four schools are ChicagoQuest, Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and Wrightwood.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, a spokesperson with Chicago International Charter Schools said the organization valued and respected the work of the schools’ teachers and staff but would do their best to prevent a strike.

“We know that we all come to work for the same reason – our students – and no matter the position, we are driven by the same goal of helping our students to succeed,” the statement said. But, “CICS is disappointed that the CTU has chosen to announce this strike and we will do everything we can to minimize the harm to our students and their families.”  

Chicago International also announced contingency plans at their four buildings in case of a strike: all campuses would be staffed by principals and non-union staff and remain open during usual school hours. Breakfast and lunch, along with online learning and recreational activities, would be available to students who came to school.

The announcement follows other high-profile teacher union actions. The nation’s first charter school teacher strike took place in Chicago in December, when some 500 union members at Acero charter schools walked off for a week. And Los Angeles teachers who are out on their first strike in 30 years this week were joined on the picket lines by charter educators on Tuesday.

The vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union connected the demands of teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools to the wave of teachers strikes that took place across the country in 2018.  

“Oklahoma. North Carolina. Arizona. West Virginia. Kentucky. Chicago. Los Angeles. It is very clear that in 2019 teachers are going to have to stay on the picket line to ensure smaller class sizes, to ensure that resources are really coming into our classrooms,” Stacy Davis Gates said at a press conference outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

The Charter union Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which originally represented charter teachers, joined the Chicago Teachers Union last summer.

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union also delivered a 75-point set of contract demands to the city addressing a wide range of issues, including a push for a 5 percent pay raise, as well as a request for district action on overcrowded classrooms and the loss of veteran black female teachers.  

ONLINE SCHOOLS

A new proposal aims to ratchet up oversight of Indiana’s most troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

Indiana lawmakers quietly took an initial step Wednesday that could eventually lead to the closures of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A provision to stop school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools was tucked into a widely supported proposal to require students and their families to take an annual orientation before they can enroll in an online school. The bill passed the House Education Committee by an 8-0 vote and will be sent to the full House for consideration.

The move would prevent Daleville Community Schools, the oversight agency for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, from renewing those charters. Indiana Virtual School’s charter agreement runs through the 2020 school year. Daleville has not publicly posted the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which opened in 2017, so it is unclear when it expires.

If the two virtual charter schools were to remain open after their charters expire, the bill would require them to seek what education leaders hope would be a stronger oversight agency — a statewide charter authority such as the Indiana Charter School Board or Ball State University.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he was “trying to do more than engagement, and improve the performance of our virtual charter schools.” He has previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think school districts should oversee large, statewide virtual charter schools.

Read more: Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

Daleville schools superintendent Paul Garrison attended the committee hearing and testified in favor of the orientation requirement — his suggestion to make the onboarding process an annual requirement was added to the proposal — but he did not address the authorizing provision. Chalkbeat was unable to reach Garrison or Indiana Virtual School Superintendent Percy Clark for further comment.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have in recent years had some of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2018, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and it also failed to test enough of its students to receive an A-F letter grade from the state, Chalkbeat found.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation showed that as Indiana Virtual School ballooned in size and posted dismal academic results, it had business ties that stood to financially benefit its founder.

Despite receiving $1 million in fees last year to oversee Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, education officials have raised concerns that Daleville is not holding the schools accountable.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry has said.

Chalkbeat’s investigations and the continual low performance of virtual charter schools prompted the state board to recommend stricter regulations, including strengthening the oversight of online schools and improving engagement efforts with students.

Read more: Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

The authorizing provision also seeks to stop other school districts from following in Daleville’s footsteps, closing what some see as a loophole in Indiana law. School districts are only allowed to authorize charter schools within their boundaries, but they are not expressly prohibited from overseeing virtual charter schools.

Last summer, a Chalkbeat investigation examined an agricultural school that sought to open as a full-time virtual charter school overseen by the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district. But state officials warned the district that they believed it did not have the authority to oversee a statewide virtual charter school, and Indiana Agriculture and Technology School backed off its plans, opening instead as a blended school offering half of its instruction online and half in-person.