Improving Special Education is a Priority for Newark Charters

by Mark Rynone

In this blog post, Mark Rynone, Executive Director of the NJ Special Education Collaborative, discusses the ways that Newark charter schools are working to ensure that students with disabilities can access and thrive in charter schools.

Since its inception in 2013, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has provided support to charter schools in Newark. The focus of our work has been to improve the capacity of charter schools across the city to ensure that they are equipped to provide high quality supports and services to students with a wide range of learning differences. In 2016, we launched the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative to deepen our commitment to this work throughout the state and to offer hands-on assistance to member charter and traditional public schools, traditional school districts, and charter management organizations (CMO). Many Newark-based schools, districts, and CMOs are active members of the Collaborative and participate because they are committed to serving students with disabilities equitably and innovatively.

During the Collaborative’s first year, I led members through a process of discovery. Was there any truth to the prevailing myths about charter schools, namely that they under-enroll students with disabilities and under-serve the ones they do enroll? Are charters suspending disabled students at higher rates than traditional public schools? Are these students disciplined at higher rates than non disabled peers in charters? Are students of color over identified as requiring special education services in all public schools? And, if disproportionality isn’t an issue, then how can we highlight and replicate what schools are doing to serve special education students.

The data shows that during the 2015-16 school year:

  • Students with disabilities accounted for 10.09% of students enrolled at Newark’s charter schools compared to 15.68%  of students enrolled in Newark Public Schools (NPS),

  • Newark’s charter schools suspended 21.16% of students with disabilities in their schools compared to 6.64% in Newark Public Schools, and  

  • In Newark charter schools, 18.69% of students without disabilities were suspended compared to 4.73% from NPS. Both the traditional public and charter schools in Newark are suspending students with disabilities at higher rates than their peers without disabilities.

Disproportionality was indeed an issue. There were also charter schools working hard to do right by all kids. We realized that it would be necessary to address the challenges and share the best practices in order to create an environment across New Jersey schools where all students are provided with the opportunity to meet their full potential.

Initially, some members of the Collaborative needed support meeting regulatory requirements like capturing, validating, and organizing data into reports or enforcing  the components of an individualized education program (IEP). Some members struggled to attract students with disabilities because of the misconception that charter schools do not serve them and focused on tailoring recruitment efforts to combat this perception. Other members, like Robert Treat Academy had effective systems in place to ensure legal and regulatory compliance so focused instead on ensuring high quality service provision. Educator retention had been a challenge which studies show, negatively impacts student outcomes. In addition to serving as a special education compliance exemplar to other schools, Robert Treat now invests significantly in professional development to grow and retain their talented special education staff.

As members become more effective compliance managers, the focus of the Collaborative is shifting to service quality. How can charters build capacity and systems to serve students of all ability levels and not just those who require the least support and services? How can all public schools thoughtfully integrate disabled students into classes with their non-disabled peers? Improve their ability to progress monitor students? Improve transition services so that every student has a post-secondary education, career, or independent living pathway?

I am heartened by the growth of our membership over the last three years and the dedication and urgency of our members to develop innovative ways to meaningfully and intentionally serve students with disabilities in their schools. Like Achievers Early College Prep who joined before the school opened in order to deliberately integrate students with disabilities into their school design and philosophy. Or like other members who doubled their investment in support from the Collaborative. These are some of the ways that Newark charters and other members of the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative are making strides to create access to inclusive schools for all students.