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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 08:02 PM ET, 05/24/2012

Are charter schools bad at special ed?

Critics say public charter schools have an unfair advantage over regular public schools because they are less likely to have students with learning disabilities. That is not always true. Consider one D.C. charter management organization, DC Prep, with more than 1,000 students.

Its Edgewood Middle Campus, a fourth-through-eighth-grade middle school, has a larger portion of special education students than the District’s average. Seventeen percent receive services and are showing progress.

I do not mean to disparage regular D.C. schoolteachers who are doing special education work. I have seen enough programs for students with learning disabilities to know that fine work can be found at schools otherwise labeled as failing because of their low test averages.

Emily Lawson, founder and chief executive officer of DC Prep, describes her school’s methods this way:

“We employ an inclusion model, with special education teachers working alongside the general education teacher in the classroom. This general classroom experience ensures that special education students master grade-level content.

“We have structured our school day to provide two hour-long sessions of small-group work for students at all levels — both those requiring extra support and those doing above-grade-level work. Because these groups are fluid — with groupings changing as students master specific skills and content — students are able to get the targeted intervention they require in a timely, focused way.

“The student achievement data demonstrate that our approach is working. While our special education subgroup as a whole did not make AYP [adequate yearly progress, the benchmark for the federal No Child Left Behind law], results in each of the past two school years show that at least 66 percent of our special education students made 100 points of progress or more in reading, and at least 67 percent made such progress in math [100 points is roughly equivalent to one year of progress]. To us, since this is individual student-level data, . . . this is a more accurate measure of progress than AYP.”

DC Prep has, like most D.C. public schools, a large majority of students from low-income families, who usually achieve at lower levels than affluent students because of the lack of an academically enriched home environment. Seventy-seven percent of DC Prep’s children are from families who qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

Yet its academic results make it one of the highest-performing D.C. middle schools. In the 2011 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests, 74 percent of DC Prep students overall were proficient or better in reading, and 92 percent reached that level in math. The comparable results for D.C. schools were 46 percent in reading and 50 percent in math.

Forty percent of DC Prep students in special education were proficient or better in reading and 71 percent in math. Among special education students in D.C. schools, the portions were 16 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Some public-school advocates say charter parents are more involved with their children and savvier about schools, which is why charters have higher test scores.

I think that’s wrong. The nature of special education is part of my argument. Smart parents whose children have disabilities look for the best teachers for their child, and often find them, after careful investigation, in regular public schools. They are not going to take their children away from teachers who have earned their trust just because their friends say charters are better.

Lawson, however, disagrees, saying many parents of special education children come to her school because their neighborhood or other charter schools have proved unable to provide the services they need.

I know of no data supporting either side. Parents should not automatically write off regular or charter schools until they see what the actual school they have in mind might do for their child, no matter what the test scores are.

By  |  08:02 PM ET, 05/24/2012

Tags:  charter schools and special education, DC Prep success with learning disabilities, Emily Lawson

 
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