Grrr. SF charter school counsels out child with mild-moderate disabilities

I got an email today that is really setting me off. I am redacting identifying details to protect the family, and because I believe this happens all the time: in many ways the specific school doesn’t matter. Read:

I did some research to see what would be the best option for my child. I really liked the idea of [redacted], and I thought it would work for my child with the right support. [redacted} charter school was one of my choices, so I spoke with its resource specialist. [redacted] was very fair and kind, but . . . told me that children with [disability] are typically not a good fit for [charter school]. This school is recommended for children who are independent and are able to learn without much of adults intervention. [emphasis added] I sent [redacted] my child’s last IEP in advance, and [redacted] thinks [redacted] disability is too severe that [school] may not be able to support [child] as it is a charter school with limited resources.

Wow. The parent who wrote me describes the child as having a speech delay and lacking social skills compared to peers. She wrote: the child is  “advanced academically and is able to follow directions. . . I would not call [child]’s’ disability ‘severe.'”

So here’s my question. Would the same charter school tell parents of typical children that it serves children who are able to learn without much adult intervention? I really doubt it, since that wouldn’t be a very good selling point.

This is a hot button for me because the practice of “counseling out” children who are more difficult and time-intensive to educate (read: expensive) is a common complaint about charter schools. Charters are particularly notorious for failing to serve students with disabilities — and parents of students with profound intellectual or physical disabilities often don’t even try to enroll their children at charter schools because it’s so rare that their kids are actually served at these institutions, even though Federal laws governing the education of students with disabilities apply to charter schools in the same way they apply to district-managed public schools.

I want to believe what the leaders of our district’s charter schools tell me — I really do. Every school talks about its commitment to serving all students, particularly those with challenges, how they want to increase opportunity for all students and how they are just struggling, underfunded public schools just like district-managed schools. And then I hear things like this parent’s story.

Tonight I did talk to a parent whose child with autism was served well at this particular charter school, and she urged me to get a fuller account before judging. Indeed, it appears that the professional that the original parent who wrote me talked to might be an SFUSD employee and not an employee of the charter school. So there is more fact-finding to do about this particular situation. On the other hand, in response to a Facebook post this evening I got an email from a different parent who experienced a similar situation a year or two ago:

My child is visually-impaired and when we were applying to SFUSD high schools, I called the head of special ed at each of the schools we were looking into, [redacted], [redacted], [redacted] and [charter].  I was really, really interested in [charter].  I’d heard that it was great . . .  When I spoke to the RSP, that was not my impression.  I was told no students with visual impairments had attended [charter], they don’t offer as many special education services as most of the schools in district. They didn’t have any special day classes.  I was told that because they were a charter school, [child’s] IEP didn’t really apply. 

To be fair, the parent also said that a highly-selective district-managed comprehensive high school was similarly discouraging. Her child is now in another district-managed high school and doing great. She isn’t looking to rock the boat, but was interested in sharing a perspective because I raised the topic.

I want all public schools, whether they are privately-managed charter schools or district-managed traditional schools, to be very thoughtful about their obligations to students with disabilities and to remember that their charge is to serve ALL, without barriers. Tonight’s communications have reminded me that we aren’t there yet and need to do much, much better by our students with disabilities.


6 responses to “Grrr. SF charter school counsels out child with mild-moderate disabilities

  1. I am super concerned about these practices. Similar to what Ali wrote, I’ve heard parents from a certain charter school discussing how they need a certain type of parent to fundraise $300k/yr. Why does the state keep approving charters when they obviously aim to exclude?

  2. Rachel, thank you for writing about this. The very fact that charters are “opt in” means they necessarily opts out marginalized families who are unfamiliar with charter applications and school lottery processes.

    Moreover, the fact that they are “opt in” also allows them to “opt out” students (either overtly, or covertly). During the early 2000’s I was disillusioned with traditional public high schools and bought into the charter school myth. Over five years, I worked with at least 3 Bay Area Charter Management Organizations (CMO’s). I can attest to the fact that ALL the schools I worked with sold the idea of “high quality schools for ALL kids” yet actively “counseled out” any students it found too difficult to educate. Most of these students had either experienced trauma or had learning disabilities.

    In fact, several schools built discrimination into their business plans by under-resourcing special education services. It’s a lot easier to tell a family their child “would do better in a comprehensive, traditional public high school” when you don’t even budget for appropriate resource specialists, counselors or wellness staff.

  3. Lowell Parent

    I hear you on the charter concern. Just wanted to throw out there that we have two children at Lowell, one with an IEP and the other with a 504. While neither has a visual impairment like the child in your post, we have been so impressed with the support we have gotten there and have nothing but praise for the Lowell special ed staff.

  4. Maybe the school board should examine its policies. Why does Lowell exist? What are the benefits? Shouldn’t Lowell be required to take low performing students?
    A smart school administrator will find a way to get the desired numbers used to judge her school. If it is good outcomes at a lower cost, that is what you will get. SF Elementary school administrators are not above gaming the system.
    I used to assess training programs, always on the lookout for models or “promising practices.” The basis for judging programs was high outcomes at the lowest cost. Invariably the “model” programs were highly selective. In almost any community you can find smart well behaved students enroll. A retiring school superintendent once told me, no one likes to discuss this, but there is such a thing as the normal curve.

  5. The only highly selective district-managed high school that’s comprehensive is Lowell, and I know young people with disabilities who have attended there — two with autism and other disabilities, one with severe hearing impairment; one with physical mobility impairment; I’m sure I know others who aren’t coming to mind at the moment.

    Charter schools are, of course, de facto free to screen students in any way they wish and politically immune to any oversight or challenge. That’s the system we’ve created.