Charter Schools are Using Innovation to Help Kids with Special Needs
This month, as many Americans celebrated National Charter School Week, charter school opponents continued to claim that charter schools discriminate against students with special needs. Yet in fact, all across the country there are charter schools that are leading the way in helping children with special needs.
Charter schools are public schools independent of school districts, which gives them greater freedom and flexibility to meet the needs of students.
Life Learning Academy in San Francisco is one example of a charter high school that takes students that the regular public schools can’t handle. Many of the school’s students have been homeless. Speaking with education reporter Jill Tucker of the San Francisco Chronicle, Teri Delane, Life Learning’s executive director, observed that the school takes in the “flunked out, dropped out and kicked out.”
Among the students at Life Learning, Tucker noted, “Nearly half have been abused, many have had brushes with the criminal justice system, and all failed to thrive in traditional schools.” The school has rescued these students and put them on the path to success in life.
The head of the San Francisco school board, Hydra Mendoza, acknowledges, “They serve a very specific population very well, and the program has been a lifeline for many of our most vulnerable students.”
The school is building dormitory facilities and will become the first public boarding school in California.
In East Harlem and the South Bronx, the New York City Autism Charter School addresses the needs of autistic children in unique and innovative ways. According to Politico, the school “stands apart” from other schools “for the staff’s level of specific expertise in autism, and for the school’s practice of matching every student with their own teacher or paraprofessional.”
Those taught at the NYC Autism Charter range from students with very profound needs, such as students who are not able to grasp language or have difficulty controlling physical actions and emotions, to those with more moderate needs. At age 16, the school’s students may work in jobs or internships at places ranging from White Castle to Facebook.
Writing in the education news website The 74, Caroline Bermudez of the Charter School Growth Fund described Ralphie, “who arrived at the school lacking functional language skills,” but now speaks well, “uses public transit by himself and has held four jobs and internships.”
Politico notes that NYC Autism “could likely only exist as a charter, outside the bureaucratic structures of traditional public schools where teachers are free to adapt to a child’s specific needs in real time.”
In our nation’s capital, KIPP DC charter schools established The Learning Center, which employs an innovative program for special education students with a range of profound needs.
Writing on the Walton Family Foundation’s blog, the school’s founder, Michael Cordell, whose own daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome, states, “We designed [The Learning Center] based on best practices from successful non-public schools, as well as insights from nationally recognized experts.”
“Our school’s theory,” says Cordell, “is that we can educate students with profound needs, give them access to experiences and resources they wouldn’t otherwise have in traditional classrooms and prepare them to succeed in less restrictive environments.”
The Learning Center has more adults in the classroom than in regular public schools, with two teachers and one teaching assistant in every classroom.
The school has an array of specialized professionals, from behavioral analysts to clinical psychologists who are present every day and work alongside teachers.
Further, Cordell, emphasizes, “We ensure that our students receive a full educational experience, including art, physical education, field trips and assemblies—‘specials’ that our students had been denied at other schools.”
Thus, as opposed to the anti-charter propaganda from the teacher unions and others, many charter schools are leading the way when it comes to helping special-needs children succeed academically and in life. Cordell likely speaks for his compatriots when he says, “We believe every child, regardless of his or her special needs, requires and deserves a top-notch education.”