Teacher's Desk: Special Ed & Charters

There's a controversy over the enrollment disparity of special education students in charter schools vis-a-vis district schools. The Denver Post editorialized about this on June 15, based on an earlier story by their own Jeremy Meyer. He found that charter schools average 7% of student enrollment identified as special education and whereas the figure for district schools is 10%. I’ve worked in both district and charter schools and my personal experience does not match this report! Montbello High School, where I worked for 2 ½ years, had approximately 10% of its student population designated as special education and the school served as the center program for two different special education populations. There were also five of us working as mild/moderate special educators and each of us carried a case load of about thirty-five students.

Then, I worked for both KIPP College Prep, a middle school, and Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative charter high school. My percent of special education students at KIPP as a percent of enrollment was 20% and at AUL was approximately 25%. At Colorado High School Charter, I have had a high of 25% of student population identified as special education and a low of 10% of student population identified as special education students.

Many parents of special education look for schools that are highly structured and/or have small classes so that their special needs child does not fall through the cracks. That is why so many urban parents are trying to place their special education students in Denver charter schools. I also have many students not qualifying for special education, but who have significant gaps in learning and are also four to seven years behind grade level after a career in district schools from around the metropolitan area.

The problem, as I see it, is not that special education students are being turned away at charter schools, because I have seen that happen a both district and a charter school, but what do parents want for their special education students and why are the district schools not offering it. What can some charter schools do better to provide for special education students and recruit to parents of special education students?

I discovered parents want their special education students to have small classes providing more one-on-one attention. They want parents that will work with their children and them -- and communicate to them! They want their students to continue to improve both their weaknesses and strengths. They want their students to have as normal and productive life as possible and this may include college or post-secondary education. These folks really are not asking for anything that we don’t all want for our children.

The only way we can all get it right, is to provide smaller settings with quality instruction for all our students. If this means districts turn all their schools into charters -- fine, but we must also make sure that we have enough smaller school settings for the students that need them. Whether it is a charter school or a regular district school, when the school is too large, too many students fall through the cracks because the educators lose the time and ability to serve all students well. I am sure the small size of my classes and the extra help I can give to students is why so many of my students flourish.

One of the reasons that some special education students are turned away from some charters is that after the principal and special educator look at the previous IEP (Individual Education Plan), they discover the special education hours to be served on the IEP are not attainable by many schools. The accommodations and information about the student makes them appear to need center school enrollment. I am here to say---they probably do not, and may do very well with a change of settings. I have even taken cognitively disabled students that end up performing better than their IEP would indicate. All of us need to give these students a chance. Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator at Colorado High School Charter with an M. A. in educational leadership and is a former candidate to the State Board of Education.