Charter schools

Teacher's Desk: Florida's Example

State Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, is sponsoring SB-130, a pilot program for three charter schools serving autistic students. I remember talking years ago with Sen. Spence about her scholarship bill for poor students -- Colorado's voucher experiment -- being struck down in the courts. She asked me to check out what Florida was doing for special education students. I did and discovered the McKay Scholarship Program. Much as I like this year's SB-130, the McKay Scholarships are far better. The McKay Scholarship allows any student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), Kindergarten through 12th grade, the opportunity to attend the school that the parent and student feel is the best fit. This includes, district public schools, charter schools, and private schools. The state of Florida will pay the choice school the amount of state funds used to educate that student, or private tuition, whichever is less. This can be as little as $5,500 per school year to $22,000 per year depending on the severity of the disability.

Senator Spence was originally supporting parents of autistic children with a similar version to the Ohio Scholarship Program. The Ohio Scholarship Program is a choice program for autistic students only and allows school choice for students with autism in a district or out-of-district school, or in a private school. The student must have an IEP with the autism disability designation. Unless transportation is noted in the IEP, the parents are responsible for transportation costs. The state will fund the student up to $20,000 per year depending on the student’s needs. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means there are many different levels of abilities and needs and all are under the autism umbrella.

I truly like the McKay plan best because it supports all disabling conditions. Many of our transient special education students are falling through the cracks. It is not uncommon to see sixteen and seventeen-year-olds reading at the first, second, and third grade levels. Those of us working with a quality reading program like Wilson or Language can move students two to four years in reading levels for one school year’s instruction if the student attends regularly and is motivated. Attending the school of your or your parents’ choice denotes buy-in; motivation and attendance is more likely to occur.

I like the McKay Scholarship over a pilot charter because it would impact students with disabilities immediately. Although I support the charter pilot program, it will take two or more years to develop a charter, pass a school district’s board of education’s specifications, find quality, supportive charter school board members, and market to the autistic community. Then, a principal familiar with charters, autism, leadership, and new school openings must be selected, as well as, the selection of curriculum, personnel, location …and much, much more. It would be so much easier to pay students’ tuitions for existing programs!

I don’t believe the general public realizes how many students need some form of special education and never receive it. We have an abundance of students with attention problems, behavior problems, various degrees of emotional and mental illness, and plain old dyslexia. Most schools’ special education (IEP) population is 10% of the total student population. My experience in district and charter schools leads me to believe that for every child we have in our schools on an IEP, there are two more that should also be receiving services. Most of these students are bright, capable people that need some additional strategies or services to become confident and successful.

Moving to “opportunity” scholarships for students of need will lighten the load for general educators who may be unprepared for the litany of interventions and strategies needed for some of these kiddos. In Denver, we have two private schools especially designed for students with learning disabilities that are leaders in the field. Unfortunately, only the elite have access.

A Colorado form of the McKay Scholarship Program is needed. Let’s call it the Spence Scholarship Program.

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator at Colorado High School Charter with an M. A. in Educational Leadership from UCD. She is a former candidate for the State Board of Education.

Teacher's Desk: The Charter Edge

"Charters fuel DPS growth," said a Rocky headline this week. Why do public charter schools have waiting lists while old-line schools are losing ground? Story with details is here. From my experience as an educator in both types of institutions, it is obvious to me the diversity of student experiences, diversity of instructional programming, and the warm and friendly teacher/parent relationships that charter schools provide draw parents throughout Colorado to charter schools.

Denver Public Schools’ charter schools represent all grade levels with distinctly different approaches to instruction, while many of Denver’s elementary charter schools take a back-to-basics approach with E. D. Hirsch’s Core Curriculum, Odyssey Charter School provides an expeditionary learning approach for its students.

P. S. 1 introduces its middle school students to understanding their learning in an urban setting. KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, West Denver Preparatory, and Denver School of Science and Technology provide instruction to middle school students with a highly structured approach and high expectations for all students. The teachers and leaders are dedicated professionals willing to put extra time and effort into an age group that at best can be called “little rascals.” If I had a hat, I’d certainly tip it!

Highline Academy, Omar Blair Charter, Amanda Charter (formerly Challenges, Choices and Images) Highline Academy, Odyssey Charter, Wyatt-Edison, and Northeast Academy continue their rigorous approach for a pre-K through 8 or K through 8 student body (Amanda Charter is through 12). While Community Challenge School includes the 8th graders in an 8th grade through 10th grade student body enrollment.

The high school experience in Denver Charter Schools probably shows the greatest diversity of structure, culture, and student body. KIPP, Denver School of Science and Technology, Southwest Early College and the new West Denver Preparatory High School are all highly structured, academically rigorous, no-nonsense programs. Amanda Charter focuses on improving the quality of education for African-American students. Life Skills provides an opportunity for students to finally reach for a diploma with a computer-based educational program. Academy of Urban Learning is a small school designed to help students of poverty and homelessness gain access to a diploma and work experience. Skyland Community works with students to develop personalized learning plans that include outside experiences and P. S. 1 Charter tries to raise and improve students’ awareness of their learning with both a day and night school. Denver Venture School is a new program combining the entrepreneurial spirit with strong academics.

My current school, Colorado High School Charter, is an alternative school that places emphasis on giving students a second chance at earning a high school diploma through small class sizes and every student graduates with a post-secondary plan. Both day and night school students must be 16 or older. All of our seniors attend a College Summit class daily that helps them devise a post-secondary plan, apply to colleges, sign up for student aid and scholarships, write a college essay, and prepare for graduation requirements. All students graduate with acceptance into a post-secondary institution; many are the first in their family to go to college!

All of these charter schools welcome parents and many require parental participation. When parents choose a school for their student, or an older student chooses a school for himself, there is much more buy-in and a greater likelihood that the student will succeed. Parents and students are flocking to charter schools because involved parents will choose the school their children attend, not depend on sending them to the closest school. A charter school relies on the fact that needed school dollars require them to provide quality instructional programming for their school or it cannot exist. Student success and parental satisfaction keep charter schools in business. That’s accountability.

Kathleen Kullback is a special educator at Colorado High School Charter with a M.A. in Educational Leadership and a former candidate for the State Board of Education.