Grisel Hanton does not know where to send her five-year-old to school next year.
Hanton, whose daughter Kayla is autistic, sends her two older children to P.S. 241 in West Harlem. But the school isn’t equipped to address Kayla’s needs, Hanton said, and she is in the process of looking into other special education programs—including some offered by charter schools.
Whether children like Kayla are better off—or even able to obtain a spot—in a charter school is the subject of ongoing debate. As the storm of controversy surrounding New York City charter schools continues to brew, special education has emerged as a particularly contentious issue.
This past week saw a tense public hearing on charter school accountability, held by the New York State Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, where some critics claimed that charters attempt to counsel students with special needs into other programs. Days later, State Senator John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) proposed a bill that threatens to shut down charters that don’t enroll English Language Learners and students with special needs in the same percentages as district schools.
The majority of Manhattan’s 27 charter schools, which are public schools run by a private board of directors, are located in Harlem, where the debate has been especially heated. Critics argue that charters take away space and resources from struggling district schools, while charter advocates argue that new schools with specific missions provide unique choices for families.
Space debates, teaching challenges
P.S. 241 is a case in point. The traditional public school currently shares a building with two charter schools—Harlem Success Academy, which is part of the Harlem Success Network run by former City Council member Eva Moskowitz, and Opportunity Charter School. Last year, the Department of Education moved to close P.S. 241 while keeping the charters open, citing low grades on P.S. 241’s accountability report.
Although the school was ultimately allowed to remain open, three grades—pre-kindergarten, fifth grade, and sixth grade—have been eliminated, and the seventh grade is slated for elimination next year, according to Magda Velez, PTA president at P.S. 241. And, she added, bitterness among parents over the shared space with charters has not abated.
“I’m disgusted. We’ve been here forever,” she said of the school’s co-location, adding that two more P.S. 241 classrooms were just eliminated.
A shared building, according to Velez, means that special education teachers at P.S. 241 no longer have office space in which to meet with the students they pull out of class. Instead, she said, they now hold meetings in hallways and stairwells.
But some charter school families say that the programs for students with specific needs could not be better.
Mahki Swain, a sixth grader at KIPP STAR College Prep Charter School, requires speech therapy at school as well as a “third eye,” said his mother, Kim Burke, to give him extra reminders and make sure that he is not falling behind.
“When I spoke to them about my concerns, they were excellent. He is doing much better,” said Burke, whose son previously attended Hamilton Heights Academy, a district school in West Harlem.
Children with special needs are given Individualized Education Plans by the Department of Education. Under current law, all public schools are required to provide services that meet the needs of children with disabilities—charter schools as well as traditional public schools.
Said DOE spokesperson Matthew Mittenthal in an email, “Students with disabilities receive the same services in charter public schools that they would if they were in traditional public schools.”
Behind the numbers
According to DOE numbers, though, city charter schools generally contain a lower proportion of special needs students than do district schools—11.8 percent, compared with 16.7 percent citywide, although the charter percentage has been rising steadily since 2000.
That has been the sticking point among anti-charter school activists, who say that the statistics that charter schools use to demonstrate their success reflect a more ideal population.
Some charter advocates say that these numbers have less to do with enrollment than with students’ progress over time. “At Democracy Prep we enroll more Special Needs students than the district or the city averages by substantial margins, but that number decreases the longer students are with us,” wrote Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Prep Charter School, in an email, pointing out that the same phenomenon exists for English Language Learners.
But critics claim that the disparity exists because charter schools intentionally shy away from enrolling students with disabilities, either because they don’t have the resources to educate them or because they want to optimize their student bodies’ performance.
“They know exactly what children they are selecting,” said Dianne Johnson, president of the Community Education Council of District 5 in Harlem.
Despite these accusations, random lotteries are legally required for the charter selection process. Families that apply for seats in charters are entered into individual lotteries, and the schools are required to enroll the students that are randomly selected—with weight given only to specific criteria, such as the school district where the child lives.
Still, charter opponents say that families of disabled children are encouraged to send their children elsewhere even after they have been selected by the lottery.
This is not true, charter schools maintain. “We don’t get to pick and choose our kids,” said Patricia Charlemagne, chief operating officer of Future Leaders Institute Charter School in West Harlem. “It’s not a fair assertion or accusation for anyone to make about charter schools. All children are to be admitted by a fair process.”
No easy solution
Individualized Education Plans offer specific recommendations for students, such as specific courses with no more than than 12 students taught by two teachers. But some charter schools don’t always offer these sources, and at KIPP STAR, teachers take a different approach.
According to Francie Webb, a KIPP learning specialist, the school does not offer the sometimes IEP-recommended two-teacher course, but parents whose children require such attention are made aware of this. Many, she said, choose to send their children to KIPP anyway.
“I understand as an educator what it’s like to step back and question, are we doing the best for this kid? Is this the best environment for him or her?” Webb said.
Webb emphasized that special education programs, both in traditional public schools and in charter schools, vary across the board in quality and in approach. Often, she said, the quality of a program has “more to do with general support and knowledge of different types of disabilities” than with low student-to-teacher ratios.
She added, “I don’t know of many non-charter public schools who serve our population, who are able to sit down and dig deeply into what each child needs the way that we do.”
There are challenges though. Nikki Khosla, a former director of Brooklyn Ascend Charter School and a former special education teacher, said that “sometimes students with special needs may find the model of the charter school may take some adjustment.”
Burke mentioned that her learning-disabled son had difficulties at first with the higher standards at KIPP. “He’s really struggled,” she said. “It’s a longer day with much more work.”
But some charters, St. HOPE and Opportunity among them, attempt to serve their students in more inclusive settings rather than in separate classes.
Mittenfield from the DOE said that charters “are free from some of the state’s restrictions surrounding class configurations, so many charters are more flexible in how they design programs for students with disabilities.”
Finding a mission
Some charters make it their mission to provide disabled students with a quality education. Opportunity Charter School, which is one of the schools co-located with P.S. 241, was founded “with the desire to have a 50-50 population—half with disabilities, half without disabilities,” said Lenny Goldberg, the school’s founder and CEO.
The school’s mission is “to provide high quality special education services for free to New York City public school students, especially in Harlem, that they would normally have to go a private school to get,” he added. Goldberg, who has a masters in bilingual special education, and who worked as a special education teacher in Harlem public schools and ultimately became principal of a special education school, sees the charter model as one that can help students with disabilities achieve the most.
Andrew, from Democracy Prep, founded his school with similar goals. “Part of our mission is to make sure we are serving kids with special needs,” said Katie Duffy, director of external affairs at Democracy Prep. “We work with families and scholars to make sure they have IEPs that accurately reflect what their situation is,” she said, adding that special needs students at Democracy Prep outperform their District 5 counterparts.
Still, the debate rages on, with critics pointing at the numbers and arguing that high-performing charter schools aren’t doing their fair share to educate students with special needs. Thomas Hehir, a prominent education scholar who testified at congressional hearings on education in Washington at the end of February, pointed out in his testimony that while many charters do serve special populations, there are still strides to be made. Hehir specifically argued in his testimony that charters generally serve fewer children with disabilities than traditional schools.
“We would take harsh action against any school we found to be purposely avoiding our highest needs students,” Mittenthal said. “While there is still a gap to be closed, we have made real progress in enrolling more students with disabilities in charter schools.”
And while now it may be difficult for some children with autism to find accessible refuge in the charter school system, the charter school model has been an effective solution for parents like Burke.
“I didn’t know he’d get that type of attention when I entered him into the program,” Burke said. “They’re just absolutely great.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Nikki Khosla was the current principal of Brooklyn Ascend Charter School, when in fact she is the former director. Spectator regrets the error.