Published Online: April 13, 2012

Chicago Charter Schools Struggle to Serve Special Ed. Students

At 6, Maria Martinez’ son barely spoke a sentence, and when he did, it came out garbled. His reading and writing skills also were below grade level.

He was enrolled in a small Catholic school, and his teacher knew he needed specialized help. But she doubted the school could offer it and gently explained to Martinez that she would need to transfer him to her neighborhood public school.

“I noticed it too,” says Martinez, whose name was changed to protect the privacy of her son. “I noticed that he was disconnected. I noticed him lost.”

Martinez took him and his older brother to Sawyer Elementary, the large public school not far from her home on the Southwest Side. The young boy was diagnosed with autism and a significant speech and language disability and started getting special education services. But Martinez was still worried. His class had 32 students. The teacher was kind, but wondered out loud whether she had the time and attention to focus on him.

“This school had so many kids, I never think that they could help my son,” says Martinez, whose native language is Spanish. “Many people feel Sawyer is a good school and probably it is, but not for my son.”

During his 1st-grade year, Martinez was again searching for a school. Over the past decade, one of the buzzwords in Chicago Public Schools has been choice, and the district has opened up myriad new schools—most of them charters—to give parents more options.

Martinez didn’t know whether a charter school could embrace and educate her son, given his special needs. It’s a critical question that an increasing number of parents are asking as CPS continues its charter school expansion.

About 10 percent of CPS students are in charter schools now, but with strong support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the School Board, the plan is to increase enrollment three-fold in the next decade.


In addition, how charter schools serve special education students is one of the last unresolved issues in the landmark Corey H. case, the decades-old federal case under which the district’s special education department was assigned an outside monitor to evaluate whether students receive appropriate special education services.

For years, the plaintiffs in the case have argued that charter schools are not serving their share of special education students and that the Illinois State Board of Education has found compliance problems. Lawyers for ISBE and CPS (the defendants in the case) have recently argued that the situation has improved enough that monitoring is no longer needed.

But a response filed in February by a lawyer for the plaintiffs notes that a detailed look at the disability population in charters shows some broad differences. Among the points made by the lawyer is that the overall percentage of students with disabilities in charter elementary schools is 25 percent lower than in regular elementary schools.

Among the special needs students in charters, most have less severe disabilities: 72 percent are learning disabled, compared to about half in the district as a whole. Only 2 percent of special needs students in charter schools have more severe disabilities (as measured by the percentage of students requiring placement in separate classrooms for the majority of the school day), compared to more than 16 percent in traditional CPS schools.

CPS officials, however, say they do not think that charter schools are out of alignment compared to traditional CPS schools, and add that charters should be compared to magnet schools. Like charters, magnets are schools of choice that admit students by citywide lottery and have similar special education enrollment.

“They are handicapped by the lottery,” says Richard Smith, chief of the CPS Office of Special Education and Supports.

Smith said he was pleased with the progress made by charter schools. But at a special education symposium in November, two of his staffers told charter school operators that they need to do better.

Maureen Komperda, CPS director of special education for charter schools, said at the symposium that she was aware that some charters were still reluctant to accept students with disabilities and were “counseling” them out.

Why It Matters

Placement of special education students in private therapeutic schools, designed for students with more severe disabilities, has declined in Chicago. Advocates for these children question whether they are getting the services they need.

• CPS receives $86 million from the state to pay for private placements. But fewer than 900 students are in therapeutic schools, and advocates accuse the district of banking part of the money.

• Almost 600 of the students are in schools that are part of a special contracting program in which CPS pays a lower daily rate than the state sets, regardless of student attendance. CPS could not provide evaluation data for these schools.

• Out of 30 complaints to ISBE over the last two years, 20 were filed by parents fighting for placements, usually after their child had been failing for years in public schools.

• CPS officials insist they are doing a better job of serving special needs students inside the district, but high dropout rates among this group of students contradict that assertion.

The court monitor, Kathleen Yannias, also noted Komperda’s remarks in court documents filed in early March.

Komperda and charter school representatives stated at the symposium that charter school staff need more training about special education, especially about how to work with students who have behavior disabilities.

An analysis by Catalyst Chicago uncovered another disparity: Higher-achieving charter schools have fewer special education students than low-achieving charters. The two highest-achieving Noble Street high school campuses have a special education enrollment of 8 percent, compared to 16.5 percent in the lowest-achieving Noble Street campus. The district average for high schools is 14 percent.

Alain Locke Charter, in rough Garfield Park, is another example. The high-poverty, predominantly black school posts strong state test scores, with nearly 90 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT. But fewer than 5 percent of students are identified as having special needs, while just blocks away, neighborhood elementary schools enroll more than 12 percent.

Rodney Estvan, education advocate for Access Living, an organization for people with disabilities, says he worries about the “ghettoization” of special education students. With selective enrollment, magnet schools and now the better charters not taking in a higher share of special education students, more of those students will be concentrated in neighborhood schools.

“There are fewer and fewer options for these kids,” he says.

Rachel Shapiro, senior attorney for the disability rights group Equip for Equality, says she has worked with parents who have applied for charter seats and won the lottery—only to be told, even before they enroll, that the school can’t serve their child.

“[Charter officials] will say, ‘I don’t think you want to be here,’ ” Shapiro says. Typically, the child has a more severe disability and needs a self-contained classroom, but the charter school does not have one that is appropriate.

Shapiro sees another problem: charter school staff who cling to the school’s strategies and ‘push out’ students who cannot conform, even if they have a diagnosed or suspected behavioral disability. Often the issue is one of discipline.

But CPS’ Smith notes that charter schools across the country are struggling to find the best strategies for educating students with special needs. He believes CPS is doing better than other districts on this front.

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of activists filed a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Education alleging that charter schools in New Orleans were discriminating against students by failing to provide them with needed services. Also, in 2010, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law filed a complaint with the U.S Department of Justice claiming that Washington D.C. charter schools discriminate against students with significant needs.


Charter school officials point out that they are wrestling with how best to work with students with special needs. In fact, the issues are similar to those that traditional schools have long dealt with.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy notes that, for instance, it wouldn’t make sense for a charter school to have a room set aside for students with cerebral palsy if only one student wants to attend. Yet Broy says he tells principals they can’t turn any student away.

Smith notes that traditional schools often place students in what are known as “cluster classrooms,” created for special needs students from a group of schools. Smith’s office is pushing charter schools to develop their own cluster classrooms.

Broy also acknowledges that enforcing discipline can be problematic. “The manifestation of a disability can’t be punished,” he says.

In October 2011, three charter networks were given the go-ahead to expand over the next three years—LEARN, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and Noble Street. All three, however, have faced federal civil rights complaints filed by parents alleging that their disabled children were mistreated.

LEARN and UNO resolved the cases before a decision was made by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In the case of Noble Street, a mother contended that her son, diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, was having trouble complying with Noble Street’s strict student discipline code. The student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), however, addressed only the academic aspects of ADHD, not discipline. The civil rights office denied the complaint, suggesting to the mother that she get the IEP revised.

Another complaint was also related to discipline and was filed against the University of Chicago’s Woodson campus. The mother alleged that her son, who had Attention Deficit Disorder, was retaliated against for behavior related to the disability.

The complaint was resolved before the Office of Civil Rights issued its finding. The charter school leadership agreed to provide teachers with training on how to work with students who have ADD.

Shayne Evans, director of University of Chicago charters, would not comment on the case, saying he was not in his current position when it was filed.

Evans insists that the university charter school network does its best to serve the needs of all its students. But Evans says he doesn’t view students who need special services any differently from other students, and he sees no reason why any student should be held to a different standard.

“We just believe that all our young people have capacity,” Evans says. “We can help all of our students. All 520 of our students have different strengths and differences.”

In some ways, the characteristics that make charters attractive may inadvertently contribute to the problem. Charter schools are intended to be innovative and free-wheeling—divorced from district regulations and red tape, and with their own unique rules and philosophies. But that model can collide with the mandate to serve students with special needs, whose IEP must be followed, regardless of the charter’s set-up.

Helen Kossler, the head of special education at Perspectives Charter Schools, says she sometimes has to have conversations with deans and teachers about how to meld the school’s approach to behavior with the individual needs of students.

Perspectives’ founders created a set of 26 principles that they insist students adopt, called “A Disciplined Life.” A Disciplined Life aims to instill students with self-discipline, perseverance, integrity, and responsibility.

Kossler says that for children from stable families who have good heads on their shoulders, A Disciplined Life provides a language and structure for behavior. “Kids really bloom,” she says.

But children with behavioral disabilities can find it difficult to adjust, and the school may have trouble adjusting to them.

“It is not an easy marriage,” Kossler says.

For these children, Kossler says, teachers might need to take the extra step and teach them how to be compassionate and respectful. “We don’t want to expel kids,” she says. “We want to teach them.”

Plus, some parents complain when modifications are given for certain students but not their child.

“Susy is allowed two warnings before she’s given a demerit, while Johnny gets nailed the first time,” Kossler explains. To maintain student privacy, parents who ask for an explanation cannot be told why one student gets another chance when their child did not.

Michelle Phillips, executive director of the Family Resource Center on Disabilities, says that charter school staff do not, as a whole, have the same background in special education as teachers in traditional schools.

Phillips says she and her staff have gone to meetings at charter schools for students with IEPs and sometimes found that the teachers are clueless. Charter school teachers are often inexperienced and have gone through alternative certification programs that do not require the same number of classes or seminars on special education, Phillips says.

“From our perspective, there’s a big lack of knowledge,” says Phillips, whose organization provides education and assistance to parents as they seek the right services for their children. “They are not fully aware that they need to follow IDEA.” IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, is the federal law that governs special education.


Parents need to be careful when enrolling their children in charter schools, says Phillips. She suggests that parents investigate and understand the charter’s philosophy and rules and think about whether their child will be able to fit in.

Some parents will still choose a charter, even if they are not sure their child will do well. “There is a prestige with charter schools,” Phillips says. “Sometimes, anything seems better than their neighborhood school. Also, charter schools seem safer.”

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Kossler, too, says she can see why parents are attracted to Perspectives and its heavy emphasis on social and emotional learning. “It is appealing to them, even if they know there child is not there at the moment,” she says.

Charter schools could indeed represent a significant opportunity for students with special needs. Ramona Robertson, director of special education at LEARN, says that teachers at charter schools are often willing to try new approaches and aren’t encumbered by old ways of doing things.

“I think that there is a different level of creativity in charter schools,” she says.

One example is the solution that LEARN teachers created for a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: drawing a box around the student’s desk. Now, he is allowed to get up, turn his desk upside down or fiddle with his shoelace, as long as he doesn’t leave the box.

“All the while, that child is listening and learning,” Robertson says. “As long as he doesn’t leave that box, the teachers don’t bother him.”

At LEARN, each class has two teachers, usually one more experienced and one newer to teaching. While the less-experienced teacher may not know the intricacies of the law, he or she is often less rigid and willing to try something different, like the box, says Robertson.

Misperception may be one reason why fewer special needs students enroll at LEARN. The schools are located in buildings that previously housed private schools, and Robertson thinks parents believe LEARN is like a private school and will turn away a child who needs special services. Some parents won’t even reveal to the charter school that their son or daughter has a diagnosed disability.

Robertson says parents shouldn’t think that charter schools are not for them.

“All parents should have a choice as to what school their child goes to, whether they have a special need or not,” Robertson says. “I don’t think having an IEP should be a stumbling block to choice.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum are parents who flood a charter school with applications once it gains a reputation for working well with special needs students.

That is the case at Namaste Charter, where almost 20 percent of students are in special education. Like all charter schools, Namaste’s students are chosen through a lottery.

Allison Slade, principal and co-founder of the small charter school in McKinley Park, suspects that Namaste’s focus on health and well-being is one reason.

The school has an hour-long exercise block every day, plus recess. Students participate in yoga and dance, as well as traditional physical education activities. So if a parent thinks that their child is a bit more active, or less likely to be able to sit still for a whole day, they often are attracted to Namaste.

Namaste case manager Gladys Gutierrez smiles as she says, “We have a group of parents who do a nice job of telling others about us.”

Slade is a former bilingual teacher and stresses that she is still learning about special education. But she notes that working with special education students does not mean that the school has to alter its philosophy, because they are already focused on the individual needs of students.

Martinez says she heard from her sister-in-law that Namaste provides lots of support for children with different needs. When Martinez went to visit, she was nervous when asked about her son’s particular needs, fearing she would be told again it wasn’t the school for him.

But her experience was just the opposite. “They gave me a tour and welcomed me in.”

Today, Martinez’ youngest son loves to go to school and especially likes Namaste’s learning lab. There, he finds shelves full of manipulatives—items like blocks and chips—and assistive technology, plus teachers dedicated to helping him make progress.

“He is starting to say full sentences,” Martinez says. “He still gets confused sometimes, but he tries. Before, he just got frustrated.”

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