Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Students with special needs find success in charter schools - New book identifies effective methods, challenges for educators, parents

Seattle, WA - Even skeptics who question the value and significance of charter schools will welcome the news they are making important strides in serving children with special needs.

That's the bottom line from a new book, Unique Schools Serving Unique Students, published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"It's clear from our research that parents of children with special needs don't care about labels or ideology when it comes to selecting a school that helps their child," says Robin Lake, who edited this pioneering look at the role of charter schools in meeting the needs of special education students.

"These families want a school that works," she says. "Whether it's a public charter school, or one operated by the district, whether it's exclusive to children with special needs or open to a general student body, if the school they are in doesn't work for their child, they find one that does."

Through in-depth analysis of six charter schools around the country, this book documents how special education students can be taught successfully using very different approaches. For instance, Woodland Elementary Charter School (Fulton County, GA) uses Talented-and-Gifted (TAG) instructional strategies for all students; Metro Deaf School (St. Paul, MN) serves students who are deaf and hard of hearing via a dual-language American Sign Language (ASL)/written English program; and CHIME Arnold Schwarzenegger Charter Elementary and Middle Schools (Los Angeles, CA) educates students with a wide range of disabilities in a remarkably inclusive setting.

Several important lessons for educators and policy leaders emerged from parent surveys and the six case studies:

  • School choice is important to parents of children with special needs.
  • Effective inclusion for students with less severe needs is a particular strength of many charter schools.
  • Charter schools are revealing practices that may contribute to strong instructional programs for students with disabilities in ALL schools.

These examples illustrate editor Lake's observation that some charter schools have developed informal reputations for being havens for special-needs students.

Impressive as these charter schools are in helping students with special needs, Unique Schools also discusses the many challenges confronting both the institutions and parents.

Federal and state laws require strict adherence to timelines and procedures for each student, such as the development and execution of an Individualized Education Program. While enacted to serve special education students, the mix of these laws can vary from state to state and in how they are interpreted and enforced. This erects frustrating and in some cases confusing environments for charter school leaders.

Cumbersome state-support structures for the learning-disabled that predate the advent of charter schools, the maze of legal and regulatory hurdles, inadequate funding and, importantly, insufficient human resources that limit a school's capacity add to the complex list of issues at play for charter schools trying to serve this population.

The volume identifies policy, research, and investment opportunities at what Lake says is this "delicate intersection of special education and charter schools":

  • Policies to clarify charter school legal status and equalize charter school special education funding
  • Further oversight and incentives for charter schools to develop high-quality special education
  • More research on the academic growth of children with disabilities and new approaches to special education
  • Local, state and federal investments, including seeding special education financial risk pools, cultivating special education co-ops, and incubating technical assistance networks for charter schools

Contributors to the book are Lauren Morando Rhim, LMR Consulting; Tracey O'Brien, Kelly Hupfeld, and Paul Teske, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver; Dana Brinson, Public Impact; and journalist and writer, Joanne Jacobs. Lake is Associate Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

Unique Schools Serving Unique Students: Charter Schools and Children with Special Needs is available for $19.95. Purchasing information can be found here.