Special Education

In Denver, Charters and District Team Up on Special Education

By Arianna Prothero — November 30, 2015 8 min read
Paraprofessional Ivana Jakovljevic helps 8th grader Cristina Amaya, who is visually impaired, navigate the halls at STRIVE Prep-Federal, a charter school that partners with the Denver district to serve students with significant disabilities.

The go-to narrative on the relationship between districts and charter schools is generally one of mistrust and competition, but a few outposts of collaboration between the two are challenging that story line.

Among them is Denver, where an atypical partnership between the district and local charter schools is not only tackling one of the most persistent issues for the charter sector—special education—but may also be plotting a model for the nation.

Over the last five years, Denver district officials have been opening special centers for students with significant disabilities inside high-performing charters across the city.

“I think a lot of districts are looking at Denver, and not just districts, charter-management organizations,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, the executive director of the National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools. “Denver has the potential to be very influential.”

Pablito Montoya pays close attention to teacher Sarah Bowman as she leads instruction for students at STRIVE Prep-Federal last month.

Serving students with special needs has been an ongoing challenge for the charter sector. Nationally, charter schools continue to lag behind their district school counterparts in the number of special education students served. According to a recent analysis of federal data by the National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools, as of 2011-12, 10.4 percent of charter schools’ enrollment were special education students, compared to regular district schools, where special education students comprised 12.6 percent of enrollment.

Critics have long charged that charter schools purposely push out students with disabilities in order to inflate their test scores, while charter school leaders counter that charter schools struggle to serve students with disabilities because they lack the resources and scale of districts.

Serving All Students

Inside her classroom at STRIVE Prep-Federal Middle School, teacher Wendi Sussman, along with her three paraprofessionals and 13 special education students—called scholars here—take turns giving shout-outs to one another to recognize one another’s accomplishments.

One student announces he’s been doing a good job of keeping his hands to himself, and his fellow scholars, with diagnoses ranging from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome, snap their fingers in approval—a common feature of a college prep-styled charter school.

STRIVE Preparatory Schools is a local network of nine schools serving mostly low-income, Latino students. Its Federal campus is situated in a converted school district office building next to a Walmart in the south central part of Denver.

Like many college-prep charter schools, the special education center program classroom is named after its teacher’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.

As the students split up into small instructional groups led by Sussman and the paraprofessionals, a district employee who specializes in visual impairments comes into the classroom to collect a boy who is learning to read Braille.

Victor Jarron, an 8th grader with visual impairments who attends STRIVE Prep-Federal, a Denver charter school, uses his specially formatted iPad during class. STRIVE Prep-Federal is among several charters in the city that are partnering with the Denver district to serve more students with disabilities.

“Follow me through the door and then turn right,” she says, walking a few feet ahead of the boy. He follows her voice through the classroom, across a rug with a map of the world on it, and out into the hallway.

The students don’t spend their entire day in the center program’s classroom. Depending on their disabilities, students join various general education classes around the school, including P.E., art, and science.

“The idea of serving all students is something that we’ve always believed in, but now that we’re serving a population with more significant special education needs, we live it every day,” said Libby Miller, the principal of STRIVE Prep-Federal. “It has just built our confidence and capacity.”

STRIVE had enrolled students with mild to moderate disabilities prior to the district’s center programs, but students with severe or uncommon needs would have been placed by the district into one of its 100-plus center programs.

In Denver, all charter schools are authorized by the school district, and as the local education authority, the district is responsible for making sure students receive adequate services as required by federal disability law.

That setup is different for charter schools that are authorized by their state, university, or local nonprofit. In those cases, the charter or charter network is the local education agency and, like a school district, is required to provide federally mandated services on its own.

In Denver’s model for providing services to special education students in charters, the district pays for everything from staff to administration to transportation, with the help of fees collected from both charter and regular schools across the district.

The district is involved in the rev-up and rollout of the center programs, but then takes a back seat, said Josh Drake, the district’s executive director of exceptional students.

“We want to work with you to develop a strong plan, and we need to be tight on legal questions,” Drake said. “But you’re responsible for day-to-day operating.”

Building a Partnership

The district already had a fairly collaborative relationship with the city’s charter schools prior to the center program initiative, which is unusual even in other cities where the district is the authorizer.

The two groups have also partnered to create a single enrollment system in the city for both charter and district schools and signed a compact as part of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative to increase collaboration between charter and district schools. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helps support Education Week‘s coverage of college- and career-ready standards.)

When the district opened its first charter-based center program in 2010, its goal was three-fold: to make sure students with disabilities had equal access to high-quality charters, to place center programs in areas where there was a need for specific type of center, and to develop new ways to serve special education students.

The number of students with significant physical and cognitive disabilities attending Denver’s charter schools has gone from 0.1 percent in 2010, to 0.7 percent in 2015.

The district currently enrolls around 80 percent of all public school students in the city, 1.8 percent of whom are students with severe disabilities. And although school choice remains limited for such students based on whether their needs can be met, with 16 charter-based centers now up and running, they have more access to charters than they did in the past.

But on that last goal, developing new ways to meet the needs of students with significant disabilities, Drake wishes the charter-based center programs were moving the needle more.

“In the first couple of years, we were replicating the district model,” Drake said. “There were maybe smaller innovations, but not the bigger ones you might want to see. I think we’re seeing more of it now as they gain more experience.”

The district recently sent some charter school leaders to visit successful special education programs in other parts of the country with the aim of sparking more creative ways of serving students, specifically around improving inclusion in general education classrooms.

Model for Inclusion?

Meanwhile, Denver’s approach has piqued the interests of districts and charter management organizations from across the country, said Morando Rhim, of the National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools.

“I think it could be replicated in many places, and even with authorizers that aren’t districts,” she said.

Although Morando Rhim gives Denver credit for aggressively addressing the special education issue, she has concerns. Charter schools don’t serve as many students with disabilities, but they are more likely than district schools to educate such students in general education classrooms, according to her group’s recent analysis of federal civil rights data.

Inclusion is a major goal of both special education advocates and federal law, and Morando Rhim worries that more special education center programs in charters might undermine it.

“Are the kids getting access to a charter program, or are they sitting in a segregated program just in a different school?” said Morando Rhim.

“I think on one hand the specialized center program that ensures that charters enroll a representative sample is a good thing; however, if the process of doing that creates less-inclusive settings, I’m cautious about that.”

Both the district and STRIVE have had to make changes to the way they do business to accommodate the partnership. After some charter schools demanded more time to develop and launch a program, the district was forced to extend the timeline for all of its schools.

“Historically, we would tell district-run schools in May what they’re doing in September, ‘Hey, you’ve got to open an autism school in two months,’ ” Drake said. “When we started working with charters they said, ‘No, that’s not how you open an effective center. You need a plan to do this right and have time to hire the right teacher.’ ”

Although Miller, STRIVE Federal’s principal, initially had some reservations about hosting a center program when the school first asked the district if it could open one, she said her staff, students, and parents have embraced it.

And in doing so, the school has had to rethink what it means to be a college-prep charter where the goal is for 100 percent of scholars to get accepted into college.

“I think in a way, because we had been selling ourselves and our kids on one very specific goal, we’ve had to broaden our thinking and message,” said Miller. “It’s changed our thinking around the college goal. We want our kids to be prepared to live their lives to their highest potential.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as Charters, District Partner On Spec. Ed. in Denver

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