Charter schools don't serve special needs kids.
I asked founders of three of the best charter school operators in the country, Seth Andrew of Democracy Prep in NYC, Ryan Hill of KIPP TEAM in Newark (speaking of TEAM, be sure to read TEAM teacher Ali Nagle's letter to Diane Ravitch, below), and Dacia Toll of Achievement First to respond to this. Here are their replies, starting with Seth:
Whitney, I will tackle this one because a) I'm a special-ed teacher at heart and passionate about this stuff and b) I'm up at 1am to read your email.
1) Special needs students generally get either an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Accommodation Plan. If a child is extremely dyslexic, for example, it should be an LD-IEP. That's not a state law, it's federal IDEA and applies to every school in the country. Any child with a legitimately diagnosed disability (learning, physical, behavioral, or emotional) is entitled to a personalized plan.
504s are often used by middle-class parents with "ADHD-ADD" kids (which is not a learning disability) to get extra time on tests and extra attention. In general IEPs aren't gamed by middle-class parents for Learning Disabilities because they are indeed a "mark of shame" to some degree, but middle- to upper-class folks have become more comfortable with the 504 plans and ADHD diagnosis than real LD's for some reason.
2) I have a learning disability, dysgraphia, it's relatively minor but real and it profoundly affects my writing. When I went to NYC public schools, I had an IEP, and it wasn't worth the paper it was written on. IEPs are only as good as the people implementing them. The "shame in the community" is also real in low-income communities like ours primarily because those students with disabilities are usually the most profoundly behind, and generally (though not universally) served by the lowest-quality teachers and/or the lowest quality schools. Thus parents know and fear that their kid will get tracked early-on into a SPED program or Voc-tech program of some kind. Kids with IEPs and in District 75 in particular in NYC are incredibly under-served academically, take the achievement gap in race, income, and multiply it by a factor of two for the impact of having an IEP. The "services" that kids do receive in traditional schools for their IEP's or "tailored plans" are usually compliance based and incredibly ineffective. Last I read, 5% of NYC public school students with an IEP were receiving a Regents Diploma. Some schools, usually in wealthy communities, serve special needs students well, but it's FAR from the norm in traditional schools, and honestly it's still far from the norm in high-performing charters.
3) Democracy Prep enrolls 25% of our incoming students with diagnosed disabilities on an IEP. That's almost double the district average and triple the charter average incoming. Dyslexia is on the "mild-to-moderate" end of the spectrum, and about half of our students are on the moderate-severe end coming from self-contained or CTT settings. While we de-classify a lot of our kids who aren't actually disabled, (they were just never taught to read!), we do retain-in-grade our IEP kids at higher rates. While it's a tough decision, we do so because they are further behind to start than our non-disabled kids, but the upside is that they make far greater growth than our non-IEP kids. Of those we hold back, those who started furthest behind do make the most dramatic growth over time, and virtually all of them grow.
So YES, you can name a charter that can help special needs kids." Anyone is welcome to come visit Democracy Prep any time!
Here's Ryan's response:
I don't know where people get their perceptions of charters, but they're way off.
The assertion that charters can't serve kids with dyslexia is preposterous. We have a kid with down syndrome, a number of kids with autism, and lots of kids with dyslexia. Our special ed rate is higher than that of Newark Public Schools.
Unfortunately, there are some charters (as well as regular public schools, to be sure) that that turn away or counsel out kids with special needs, but every industry has cheaters and that shouldn't impugn the work of other charter schools.
And here's Dacia's:
Our NY special ed percentages range from being a couple points above or below the local community district averages. One challenge is that strong elementary schools have a tendency to not to ID as many kids as special ed because they are doing effective instruction and interventions.
Finally, there's a charter school in NYC that's SOLELY dedicated to kids with autism, The New York Center for Autism Charter School (www.nycacharterschool.org).