Networks Learn From Each Other About Doing the Hardest Work

by Paul O’Neill and Lauren Morando Rhim

Charter schools can leverage their autonomy to provide creative, academically powerful programs that enable students to succeed. But, not unlike many traditional public schools, they frequently struggle to consistently and effectively meet the needs of students with disabilities and, in particular, students with more significant disabilities. Too often charter schools, like other public schools, lack the specialized knowledge to know how to serve students with disabilities, especially severe disabilities, and to meet their needs directly, rather than serving them through a private placement outside of the school.  In April, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) convened a gathering of CEOs of charter management organizations, special education directors, funders and other leaders to focus on this challenge.  Their task was to explore ways that charter school networks can create, implement and share promising practices for serving students with low incidence disabilities.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted the meeting at its headquarters in Seattle and provided essential support. Leaders who have developed compelling and inclusive programs shared their innovative methods as well as their challenges. These presentations were the springboard for intense, passionate discussion and cross-pollination of ideas and techniques. The group explored options for leveraging the scale, resources and expertise of charter networks, drawing on a white paper written by NCSECS and recently published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called Equity at Scale: How Public Charter School Networks Can Innovate and Improve Services for Students with Disabilities.  Perhaps the most significant takeaways were the acknowledgement that the full spectrum of students with special needs could be served much better by the charter sector, a shared desire to document and disseminate evidence-based best practices, and a common commitment to work together across organizations to develop communities of practice and replicate extraordinary programs for students with disabilities. Topics included sharing data, growth metrics, professional development techniques, parent information systems, student discipline, finance structures and effectively serving students with low incidence disabilities.

Already this groundbreaking session is leading to a range of collaborations among networks and support groups. A follow-up meeting was held in June during the National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans to explore establishing an ongoing coalition of CMO networks that will focus on cross-organization collaboration and incubating innovative approaches to instructional and human capital needs. Look to CRPE and NCSECS for more as these efforts progress.