collaborative thinking

Struggling with special education, charter schools join together

Chancellor Dennis Walcott discusses special education in charter schools at the kick-off conference for a new collaborative.

As the director of special education at the DREAM Charter School, Jacqueline Frey knows firsthand the difficulties charter schools face when serving students with disabilities.

One issue, she said, is convincing the city that her school’s plan to serve each disabled student is sound.

And when she wants to bring her teachers up to date on the best ways to serve students with disabilities, she has to figure out how to compensate for the training that pricey consultants might be able to offer.

“If I’m a mom and pop charter school, I can’t afford to do that for myself,” Frey said. “It helps to find other schools in the same situation.”

Connecting charter schools with similar special education needs is the chief goal of the New York City Charter School Center’s Special Education Collaborative, which builds off of local efforts to boost special education at charter schools that have been going in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn since 2007. The $1,500-per-school entry fee pays for monthly training sessions, access to counselors and consultants, and an annual conference.

The citywide collaborative, which about 90 of the city’s 136 charter schools have already joined, comes at an opportune time. Both of the state’s charter school authorizers, the State University of New York and the Board of Regents, are pushing new charter schools to build capacity for more higher-needs students, including more special education students, this year, into their school designs. And at the collaborative’s first conference last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE would be pressing charter schools to “up the ante” in how they serve special education students.

The pushes are in part a response to criticism that charter schools do not enroll a fair share of special needs students. In recent years, the proportion of students with disabilities at charter schools has actually risen to nearly the city average. The challenge now, advocates say, is to serve disabled students well.

One obstacle, they say, is the very lack of bureaucracy that is often cited as charter schools’ greatest efficiency. Where district schools are situated in networks that can provide support and training for special education teachers, charter schools are on their own.

“The DOE has really grown their charter school office, but around special education it’s still a big question,” said Dixon Deutsch, the collaborative’s director.

The former director of special education for the Achievement First charter network, Deutsch said he has seen how charter schools operating on their own sometimes struggle to teach disabled students. When Achievement First schools were just starting out, they had only a handful of special education teachers on staff.

“I realized that we were doing a disservice to the kids and families that we were working with,” he said. “Kids were leaving our system and we didn’t really have the staffing or knowledge to figure out how to serve this particular population.”

By the time the network had grown to 10 schools in two states, he said, it had 60 special education instructors,giving the teachers a larger set of professional resources and colleagues to draw on.

The collaborative aims to replicate that growth, especially for schools whose leaders aren’t shooting to franchise, Deutsch said.

“The role this collaboration can really play is to bring different experts from the field together to learn from each other, to network, to see classrooms in action, to see principals in action, to make sure folks are coming together to improve special education,” he said.

Kevin Pease of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts shows teachers how to use puppets to engage students in storytelling at a breakout session.

More than 150 people attended last month’s conference, which featured seminars on classroom management, teaching literacy, and responding to behavior problems, among other topics. The training was geared toward filling in the gaps in support teachers are receiving from their principals and DOE officials, Deutsch said.

In one seminar, teachers and counselors from a number of city charter schools workshopped potential responses to students’ behavioral issues. One teacher asked the group what she should do when one of her students paces around the classroom to avoid doing schoolwork. The seminar leader, Elizabeth Fong, a therapist, suggested creating a new consequence for the student for doing his work that is more desirable than the pacing—an “avoidance behavior,” that was allowing the student to skip assignments.

Kim Madden, director of legal services at Advocates for Children, an advocacy organization for students with disabilities, cautioned that extra training is no substitute for adding more teachers who are certified in addressing a broad range of disabilities.

“There’s a huge spectrum of disabilities, so a student who needs something more intensive than something that can be done as an add-on to general ed is sometimes a challenge for charter schools,” she said.

But Madden said any effort to serve students with special needs better is a positive step for the city’s charter schools.

“Historically we have seen that charter schools have not served the students with greater needs, so I think it’s great that the schools are making an effort,” she said. “Certainly there’s a lot of room for improvement, in both charter schools and the DOE.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.