Personalizing and Empowering Special Education

Across the nation, states are facing pressure to halt charter school growth. California’s Los Angeles school district requested a state moratorium on charter schools. Oakland officials implemented a local moratorium themselves. Kentucky lawmakers refuse to fund charters, and West Virginia delegates tabled legislation that would have made state charter schools possible.

But few realize that these efforts cripple opportunity for the students who struggle most.

Today, only 69% of special education students graduate from high school on time, compared to 84% of all students. In reading, only 12% of high school seniors with disabilities test at or above proficiency on national assessments and in math only 6% test proficient.

Yet, special education experts suggest that up to 90 percent of special education students are capable of graduating from high school prepared for higher education or a career, if only they receive appropriate educational opportunities—the kind of opportunities charter schools provide.

Like public schools, charters do not discriminate against applicants and they do receive public funding. But unlike public schools, charters are free to develop the curricula that work best for each of their students.

“Charter schools are better positioned to serve the needs of special needs students and those with diverse learning needs primarily because we have the power of innovation,” said Andreya Sampy, former director of special populations at KIPP Houston Public Schools and now Director of Special Populations at the charter school, BakerRipley’s Promise Community School.

For a nation struggling to empower students with special needs, charter schools offer innovative and personalized solutions.

Thrive Public Schools, for example, a public charter school system in San Diego, California serves 640 students. Of those, 16% have disabilities and 33% are English Language Learners. For some schools, these demographics might prove challenging, but for Thrive, they are an opportunity.

Rather than providing only special education students with personalized learning plans—which are required by law—Thrive provides every student with a personalized plan. Plans are set with the help of teachers who use technology-based programs to assess students’ individual areas of struggle and achievement, and by students themselves who track their own literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional goals.

In addition, Thrive focuses on project-based learning. Students, special education and otherwise, collaborate to design and build projects like LED lanterns for refugees settling in San Diego from Syria, and work with real-world experts to design business plans and sell their products.

Thrive’s unique learning strategies are empowering their students to succeed. Although Thrive was founded only four years ago, the school is in the 96th percentile for academic growth, and they score in the top 1 percentile nationally for growth in reading.

Nor is Thrive alone. In New York, Mott Haven Academy, an independent public charter school focuses especially on meeting the unique needs of students in the child welfare system, where children are around three times as likely to qualify for special education compared to their peers.

To provide for this unique student-base, Mott Haven provides trauma-sensitivity training to all leaders and teachers, encourages evidence-based practices and collaboration among teachers to accommodate different learning styles, and works with child welfare and community-based organizations to provide families with the housing, medical, and mental health support they need to provide their student with a healthy learning environment.

And Mott Haven students are outperforming their peers in learning assessments. In 2018, 50% of Mott Haven students met state English standards, compared to 30% of comparable public school district students, and 57% of students met State Math standards, compared to 30% of comparable public school district students.

Parents nationwide are asking for their special-needs children to have the same enriching educational experience as those at Thrive and Mott Haven. In Philadelphia for example, charter schools received thousands of applications for a couple hundred openings. And in New York City, nearly 80,000 students applied to charter schools, surpassing the number of available seats by over 50,000.

Special education students face some of the worst odds of learning and graduating in our public education system. They should not have to struggle to gain access to the educational opportunities that truly do set them up for success. Instead of shutting the door on charter schools, lawmakers and the communities behind them should be looking for opportunities to help charters grow to serve the communities that need them most.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman