By the time my fourth child reached elementary school and after many years as a principal, I was much more prepared to identify the diverse learning needs of my own children and how to navigate the world of special education. Most parents are confused and overwhelmed by the process and the terminology. In school meetings,  I watched my husband  try to follow the conversation as the educators used numerous acronyms throughout the conversation – 504, IEP, MAP, STAR, CMAS, SRD, the list goes on.  What does it all mean? For families that have a student with special learning needs, working with the school to develop a student learning plan that is best suited for their child is complicated. Moreover, exploring various school models to find one that is best aligned with their student’s diverse learning needs can be overwhelming.

As a charter school authorizer, CSI is seeing more and more of our schools enrolling students with diverse learning needs and wondering how they can find the resources to most effectively meet the needs of these students. For years, charter school critics have argued that charter schools have not had the same percentages of students receiving special education services as district-run schools. While there has been a difference in the percentages of special education students enrolled in charter schools, a recent study by the National Council on Disability found that the enrollment gap continues to decrease. (Charter Schools – Implications for Students with Disabilities, NCD, 2018)  In that same study, researchers found that parents of students with special needs are less likely to enroll their children in charter schools and offer a variety of factors that may come into play.

As charters have established themselves as part of the permanent educational landscape, parents of students with special needs may be more willing to explore charter schools as options. We have witnessed this increased interest in charter schools within our portfolio. I recently visited one of our small schools, in which students with disabilities make up a greater percentage of the student body than the local and state average. This is not a school with a particular focus on serving students with disabilities, but rather an educationally philosophy that welcomes the unique learning style of all their students. And, the increase in students with special needs is not limited to this one school.  CSI’s portfolio continues to increase in its service to students with disabilities

And, it is clear in our regular conversations with school leaders and staff that they are committed to meeting the needs of all of their students and that they are looking for more resources and strategies to support their efforts.  This can be seen by the increase in financial assistance requests from our schools to address unanticipated special education support and staffing needs.  It is seen in our school staff’s interest in applying to programs to further develop their knowledge and skills in serving students with special needs. It is seen in the collaborative conversations we are having with schools in ways to continuously improve.

To monitor both access and equity, CSI partnered with the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools to develop a Student Screener tool. This tool gauges a school’s performance across several indicators related to access and equity. Results from this tool are used by CSI’s Student Services team to initiate conversations with schools and refine support plans. While still in early implementation, I am encouraged by our portfolio’s increased service to students with special needs and the deep conversations with our schools in serving all students well.

For more information, attend the Colorado League of Charter Schools conference as CSI Performance & Accountability Analyst Aislinn Walsh will have a session to “Calculate Your School’s Access and Equity Report Card”.

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