THE STUDENTS who ended up at the Options Public Charter School are the ones no other school wanted. That probably explains why the shortcomings of the school, the city’s oldest public charter, were so long overlooked. It underscores the dilemma D.C. school officials face in trying to figure out the future of the school and its vulnerable students.
“Educational option of last resort” was how Josh Kern characterized the school in recent testimony before the D.C. Council. Mr. Kern is the court-appointed receiver who has overseen the school’s operations in the wake of allegations of fiscal mismanagement by Options’s former leaders. Last fall, the D.C. attorney general alleged in a lawsuit that millions of dollars of taxpayer funds were diverted in a contracting scheme, and the D.C. Public Charter School Board voted to start the process of shutting the school down.
But the District’s traditional public school system said it wasn’t equipped to immediately absorb Options’s 380 students. Most of them have severe emotional or learning disabilities and have bounced around other schools. Many are homeless or have been incarcerated.
That these students are most at risk makes all the more shameful efforts to profit off them, particularly since Options also broke its promise of providing a “high-quality, unique educational experience.” Only 15.8 percent of its students who took the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System in 2013 scored proficient in reading, and 20 percent scored proficient in math. Some students never received required special education services while others were apparently given instruction structured not around their needs but rather what would bring the school the most reimbursement. How Options received a 15-year renewal of its charter in 2011 is a question that should cause soul-searching among public charter board members.
Of immediate concern, though, are the students who have no good choices if the school closes precipitously. It is encouraging that public charter and school system officials are discussing possible collaborations aimed at minimizing the harm to students. One idea on the table would be to keep Options open in the short term as a charter but have D.C. Public Schools — which is generally seen as better equipped to deal with students with special needs — run it. Longer-term, officials must address whether locating needy, high-risk students at a school of last resort is the best way to serve them, or whether it simply gets them out of sight.