By: Wendy Tucker, Senior Director of Policy
As I sat on the stage at the National Charter School Conference in Las Vegas last week, minutes before kicking off our “Special Education Policy: Key Challenges and Opportunities” session, those words from Field of Dreams popped into my head. In partnership with the National Alliance, we helped curate a strand of special education related sessions which would take place over the three day conference, and this was the first in the series. Earlier in the morning, we had welcomed a wonderful group of conference attendees to the Special Education Homeroom, but we really did not know what to expect for attendance. Educating students with disabilities had not historically been an area of focused interest at charter school conferences, but we sensed a growing interest nationally in ensuring equity for students with disabilities. And so, we collaborated with our partners at the National Alliance and the many schools we have had the pleasure of visiting to build the series of sessions. And then we hoped they would come. We were not disappointed. The room was packed with educators, advocates, authorizers, and school leaders, all eager to focus their energy and attention on educating students with disabilities in charter schools. There were so many in attendance that, early in the session, we were told that we had to close off admission to the room because of fire code concerns. Indeed, we had built it. And here they were.
The level of interest in each of the special education sessions presented over the course of the conference remained high. From a “fishbowl” discussion about a deep dive into special education practices across the country, to a panel of parents, advocates and school leaders discussing collaboration to a powerhouse panel discussion about the enabling conditions necessary to ensure equity for students with disabilities- each session was heavily attended and attendees were active participants in lively conversations, all laser focused on ensuring quality education for students with disabilities in charter schools.
Across the four sessions, several themes emerged:
Great school leaders are critical in creating a school culture that not only welcomes but embraces inclusion of students with disabilities;
Meaningful, intentional collaboration between general educators, special educators and specialists is necessary for schools to meet the needs of all learners and to view differences as strengths;
Embracing parent voice and committing to authentic parent empowerment are key to forming meaningful relationships between school personnel and parents; and
Challenges associated with recruiting and retaining special education teachers and specialists persist and require creative thinking and collaboration.
We applaud the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for recognizing the need to focus on special education and for acting on that need. As the debate around charter schools continues to rage, one fact that everyone can agree on is that the over 300,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in charter schools deserve a quality education. The level of interest and the depth of conversation related to special education at the National Alliance conference gives me much hope that we are part of a great movement to ensure that they get the education they deserve. We look forward to building on the momentum from this year’s conference through our research, policy advocacy, coalition building, and focused support to the charter sector. We will continue to build it, and I have no doubt that these passionate educators, advocates and school leaders will continue to come.