My friend Lance Hill down in New Orleans writes, "'Arne Duncan's recent comments that hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" makes one wonder if he will soon declare the earthquake in Haiti was the "best thing that happened to education in Haiti." Nothing "good" comes from people's suffering and people who see "silver linings" to disasters are people who have never been victimized by a disaster. After a disaster, people can turn adversity into progress, but the motive force for change is the compassion that the disaster elicits, not the disaster itself. Moreover, a closer look at New Orleans reveals that change has come a high human price and has resulted in greater disparities."The following is from NOLA.com.
Equal treatment for special-needs students in short supply at New Orleans public schools
Sarah Carr, The Times-Picayune
"While I strongly support charters, I will not hesitate to recommend non-renewal if a charter has not made significant progress at admitting its fair share of special ed students," said Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas.
A report presented to the state board of education last week shows wide, and stubborn, gaps in the number of students with special needs at the city's public schools -- particularly the independently operated charter schools.
At some Recovery School District charter schools, less than 4 percent of the students have special needs, while at others upwards of 15 percent do. On average, about 8 percent of the Recovery School District's charter students are classified as special-needs, while 12 percent are in that group at the district's non-charter schools. If distributed evenly, each school would have about 10 percent.
Advocates say they still routinely hear stories from families who were discouraged from applying at individual charter schools, or were "counseled out" once there.
"This is just flat-out discrimination, and it flies in the face of the idea of school choice and equal access to education," said Thena Robinson, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But many educators note that because parents can apply to virtually any public school in the city, some degree of variation is inevitable.
"We don't want to send a message that a school has to have X percentage," said Kathy Kilgore, director of the SUNS (Serving the Unique Needs of Students) Center. "Then what does a school do if it doesn't meet its numbers? You can't grow your own kids."
The report, prepared by state education officials, looked only at the Recovery School District charter schools. The district's 33 traditional schools and 37 charter schools must accept any child, regardless of need, from severely autistic children who require a full-time aide to students with speech impairments.
Discrepancies also exist in the percentages of special education students at the RSD's non-charter schools. But only one non-charter, a high-school program in its first year, has fewer than 6 percent special-needs students, compared to 11 charters.
At the Orleans Parish School Board's charter and traditional schools, the numbers range from 16 percent students with special-needs at Bethune Elementary to just over 1 percent at Franklin High School. But unlike the Recovery School District, where all the schools are open enrollment, several of the school board's charter schools, like Franklin, have established admissions criteria making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.
Caroline Roemer-Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said schools with low percentages of special-education students are not necessarily behaving inappropriately or turning away students. For various reasons, they might not attract high numbers of children with special needs or, like Crocker Arts and Technology School, are relatively new and serve students only in the youngest grades.
"What I don't want to see is a (low) number of special-education students become a conviction that something bad is going on," she said, noting that even the name of a school (like "college prep" or "math and science") could discourage parents of students with more intense needs from applying.
Still, she and others agree that the discrepancies between schools are too large, and have persisted for too long.
"When you have some schools in the double digits and others in the low (single digits), it's not fair," she said.
Robinson and Melissa Losch, managing attorney of the special education legal group for the Advocacy Center, which works to support people with disabilities, said their organizations routinely receive phone calls from families who report that they have been "steered away" from a specific school.
"A student with autism might be told, 'We don't really help kids with autism here because we don't have the staff or the resources,'" Losch said.
Nearly all of the issues surrounding special education can be thorny and multifaceted. While a disproportionately low percentage of students with disabilities might raise a red flag, few would advocate for a gratuitous labeling of students either, which can be a problem particularly in schools serving poor, minority populations.
And in some cases it's easy to sympathize with both the parents and the schools: Families have every right to full services, but schools cannot always get the money and staff they need to provide them.
"It is extremely difficult to expect one little, individual charter school that has 100 to 150 students to be able to accept and meet the needs of every child with every kind of disability," Kilgore said. She cited one charter school that accepted a child with a severe disability who needs personal transportation to school every day. But the school receives only half of the money it needs to pay for the transportation.
Focusing solely on access and numbers obscures the equally important issue of quality of service, some educators point out. A school can enroll dozens of students with special needs, but that doesn't mean it's caring for them well.
"The schools will take (students with disabilities)," said Danna Davis, who has two teenagers with special needs. "But are they following the plan? Are they providing the services?"
Davis said she has been fighting for years to get services for her 16-year-old daughter, who she moved this school year from a charter school to Schaumburg Elementary, a traditional Recovery School District school. "You need to go through all of this red tape, and in the meantime the children are falling way behind."
Margaret Lang, director of intervention services at the RSD, said quality of services continues to improve, particularly as schools gain experience and expertise. She noted that a new special education collaborative offers professional development and networking to interested schools.
Kilgore said charter schools have made progress in understanding the legal requirements involving special education and accepting students with the most severe needs in particular.
"I think people have their wits about them now," said Lang, although she acknowledged that "we still have a long way to go."
Both parent and charter advocates, including Roemer-Shirley, agree that the state needs to visit -- but not automatically condemn -- schools where fewer than 5 percent of the students receive special-education services.
"I don't think there's a justifiable reason for being below 5 percent," said Karran Harper Royal, a longtime parent advocate.
Although by law the state cannot put in place quotas for how many special-needs students a school must serve, RSD charter schools should have populations that reflect the city, where an estimated one in 10 students have a disability.
Royal said she worries no one is following up aggressively with schools that consistently fall below the 5 percent mark.
"The state doesn't have the staff to do the kind of investigating it needs to do," she said. "With this many charters in New Orleans, we need a top-notch compliance department."
Ken Campbell, the state's director of charter schools, disagrees. "Our ability to do (investigations) is getting better and better," he said. "If someone is found to be in violation of the law we are going to come down on them pretty hard."
Last summer, the state proposed making the charter renewal for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology contingent on its agreeing to a plan to increase the number of special education students. As of last fall, the school had identified 23 students with special needs, or about 3.3 percent of its student body.
"We have a very, very sound plan. What is it? Good teaching," Principal Doris Hicks told the state board of education at a meeting last summer. "We do not educate our students on quotas." She cited the extensive help that the school offers its weakest students, including Saturday school and after-school tutoring.
In the end, the board approved King's renewal without the provision about special education.
Speaking generally, Vallas said that the state board of education "has got to be willing to, in effect, sanction those schools that are not in compliance."
Some of the schools with the highest numbers of special education students tend to have smaller enrollments, and may attract parents partly because of the intimacy of the environment.
Ben Marcovitz, principal of the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, said parents might be drawn to his school partly because of its "advisory" system, for instance, which assigns each staff member 10 students to mentor intensely. Fifteen percent of the school's students have special needs.
"We have a lot of measures to keep every kid we have," he said. "But I don't think that's unique to our children with special needs."
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