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Disability Provisions Cited at Boston Charter School

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Federal civil rights officials are monitoring a Boston charter school after concluding that the school violated federal laws that protect children with disabilities from discrimination.

The Boston Renaissance Charter School has signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights that pledges to bring the school into compliance.

Included in the agreement is a call for the school to submit for OCR approval policies ranging from student discipline to notification of parents of their rights under disability laws.

While public schools everywhere are struggling to cope with complex state and federal special education rules, charter schools can face particular challenges. Charter schools are intended to operate free from many bureaucratic constraints, but special education is one of the most heavily regulated areas in public education. ("Spec. Ed. Rules Pose Problems For Charter Schools," and "Charter School Laws Are All Over the Map on Disabled Students," Feb. 19, 1997.)

The Boston example illustrates how crucial it is for fledgling charter schools to be prepared for children with disabilities, experts say.

"For many [charter] schools, special education was just not part of the planning," said Tim Sindelar, a lawyer with the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston. "I think that's gradually changing, but there are still some conflicts."

To address such issues, the Education Department has published a special education handbook for charter schools.

School Now a Model

In its Sept. 5 finding, the OCR concluded that the 1,080-student Boston Renaissance School discriminated against a disabled kindergartner by shortening his school day, failing to provide him with needed classroom help, and placing him in a class without appropriately trained teachers.

"OCR has made it very clear that charter schools have the same obligation to comply with special education law that [other] public schools do," said Julia Landau, a lawyer with the Boston-based Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a legal-assistance organization. "Other charter schools can now look to Boston Renaissance as a model for including special-needs students."

The nonprofit group filed a complaint with the OCR on behalf of the family of a student with attention-deficit disorder.

The family eventually withdrew him from the school, which is one of two Massachusetts charter schools run by the Edison Project, a for-profit company based in New York City.

The family has since re-enrolled the child as a 2nd grader there, and the school has also agreed to reimburse the family $4,232 for child care, tutoring, and counseling costs.

Extra Services Needed

The complaint dates to the 1995-96 school year--the year Boston Renaissance opened its doors. At that point, the 630-student school had only two special education teachers.

But it quickly became clear that the school had more students needing special education than anticipated, said Bill Doherty, the school's community-resource director.

Now, students with disabilities make up roughly 12 percent of enrollment, and Boston Renaissance has nine special education teachers, a bilingual psychologist, two social workers, and occupational and speech therapists.

In hearings before state lawmakers earlier this year, Massachusetts disability-rights advocates and educators voiced concerns over disabled students' access to charter schools. Some suggested that disabled students--who can be more costly to educate--were being counseled away from charter schools.

"It's simply not true," said John E. Chubb, the Edison Project's director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. "It's bad business for us to do anything that would suggest we're shortchanging kids."

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Web Resources
  • Special education is one of the "Dilemmas Faced by Policymakers" discussed by Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Louann Bierlein in their 1996 report, "Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?" (Scroll down to the "Special Education" section.)
  • Charter School Research. A Web site dedicated to charter schools. Its goal is to provide a comprehensive catalog of charter school-related materials on the Internet and "to cross as many boundaries as possible while enabling inquiry, communication, critique, and justifiable experimentation." Hosted by AskERIC.
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