Serving Students with Special Needs in Charters (Part 1)

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Critics of charter schools often complain they get higher-than-average test scores because they don’t take a fair share of special education students. More than 16 percent of city public school students receive special education services, compared to about 11 percent of those in charters. But one charter is going out of its way to prove it can educate the neediest pupils alongside their non-disabled peers.

There’s a ritual that takes place at the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem. As one teacher gives a lesson on comparisons, another walks around the room checking in with every single student.

“These are their folders that they get their class participation grades from,” says Allison Mutzel. She’s co-teaching this sixth-grade English class. She’s checking to see, are the students paying attention correctly? Leaning forward, eyes focused on the lesson?

“A plus is their behavior’s perfect,” she explains, of her score-keeping system. “A check plus is it’s good. And a check is a warning that they need to improve it.”

The middle- and high-school students at Opportunity Charter warrant this kind of attention because half of them have special education needs. Many have learning disabilities like dyslexia or autism; others have physical or emotional problems. The school mixes them up with so-called regular students by making its classes very personal -– anywhere from 12 to 24 students with two adults.

"The idea is that students who have not been successful at other schools, regardless of what their background has been, could find a school that was safe and nurturing and preparing them for their educational needs as well as their needs to be productive citizens,” Marya Baker, the school’s principal, explains.

Charter schools are required to accept their students through a random lottery system. They cannot screen their applicants. So charters do wind up with special-ed students. But some end up discouraging the neediest students because they don’t have the space or staff for small classes.

When Opportunity opened in 2004, its organizers spread the word that they wanted students with extra challenges. To serve them, they raised private money to supplement what they got from the state and city.

Consultant Kate Sussmann shows off the counseling offices. “We have a licensed clinical social worker, one for each grade level,” she says. “So we have seven, plus a clinical director. And everyone has their own office. That’s so the social workers can do individual or small group counseling.”

The offices are tiny, arranged along a corridor built inside a former classroom. Opportunity takes up just two floors in a regular Harlem public school. Principal Baker says it somehow manages to squeeze in 400 students and 120 staffers. That’s four adults for every kid.

“We sat down at a meeting, I had 7 people around the meeting -- social worker, behavior team teachers -- and we talked for two hours with one student and their parents,” she recalls. “That’s not something you would have happen at any other school.”

Principal Baker says accessible counseling and attention to behavior all work to support the teachers. But the combination hasn’t produced high scores. Only 20 percent of Opportunity ’s students were reading on grade level last year. Forty percent were proficient in math. The school came close to losing its charter, though it was renewed this year because those figures were actually an improvement.

Opportunity ’s leaders say the reason has to do with its population. The school’s reputation for taking special-ed students wound up attracting other students at risk -– many of whom were years behind academically even though they weren’t in special ed. At a tenth-grade math class, we see a teacher working on basic problems with a few students who are particularly struggling. “How many times does two go into 17? Can anyone figure that out?” she asks.

This is why Sussman says getting 20 percent to read at grade level turned out to be an accomplishment.

"They’re coming in at second-grade level, even if we brought them up two grade levels in one year, they’re taking a seventh-grade test that year,” she explains. “So even if we brought them up to the fourth-grade level they’re taking a seventh-grade test.”

She says the school adjusted its curriculum and added a reading program. It also brought in more experienced teachers. This year, Opportunity is graduating its first class of students and expects 77 percent to get diplomas by August -– more than the citywide average.

Seventeen-year-old Rachelle Murrell is one of those pupils. She says she wasn’t exactly a model student when she came here six years ago.

“Cause I was really bad. Really, really bad.”

How bad?

“Um, I had a phone call home every day,” she says after a long pause. “And I was just out of control.”

She says her mother wanted her to go to a military school, but then found out about the new charter school and thought it would be a good match. Rachelle has now been accepted to Mercy College. What happened?

“Well, for one thing, this school definitely changed me,” she concedes. “Because I think if I never would have came to this school, I would have been a dropout. They just give you a lot of support and they stay on you and they help you a lot.”

Luis Duperroy is hoping to graduate next year. He says he worked with a speech therapist to overcome his stuttering. And he got more help here with reading than in his elementary school. “I was in bigger classes,” he says. “And in the other school I would have trouble with my reading and math. And when I came here it did improve because I got the help that I needed.”

There are regular public schools that offer a similar inclusive model. They take a large percentage of special-education students and integrate them in regular classes with the help of extra teachers. A few are considered quite successful. The main difference at Opportunity is the flexibility that comes with being a charter. Its teachers aren’t unionized, so the school has a longer day, starting at 7:30 and ending at 4. It’s also free to experiment more.

Principal Baker says the school is now attracting higher-performing students as well as those at risk. A thousand students applied for under a hundred openings in this year’s lottery. But she understands why more charters haven’t tried a similar model.

“You have five years to prove that as a charter school you need to be successful and your test scores are the main way that the state looks at that. Or your authorizer looks at that,” she explains. “Then why would I want to take that risk? But the mission of this school was to say we know that the state test scores are important and Regents scores and all that are important and we’re going to do everything that we can to get those high test scores and high passing rates and everything. But we also know that the needs of the students have to be the driving force behind this school.”

If Opportunity can succeed on both fronts, Baker hopes more charters will follow its lead as well as regular public schools. Because in a system where one out of seven students needs special-ed services, many parents and teachers wonder if a few charters will truly benefit the rest of the city’s students.