Analysis

How Can Parents Tell Whether a School Can Really Serve Their Special-Needs Child? These 7 Principles Can Help

By Beth Hawkins | September 17, 2018

Four years ago, a group of education and civil rights advocates set out to change the conversation about charter schools and whether they appropriately serve children with disabilities. What if, instead of arguing over which types of schools deliver adequate special education services, advocates, educators, and families determined what high quality looks like for students with disabilities and then pushed all schools to improve their services?

Now, under the umbrella of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools’ Equity Coalition, 21 organizations dedicated to public education and disability advocacy have released a document, “Principles of Equitable Schools,” that they hope the charter school sector will use to create innovative special education strategies.

Their starting point: One purpose of charter schools is to birth innovations that can be used to improve all schools, and special education is an arena desperately in need of paradigm-shifting ideas. The coalition’s seven principles, carefully and precisely worded, are meant as a set of standards for upholding special-needs students’ civil rights and equitable access.

But for parents, who typically struggle to advocate effectively for a child with a disability when confronted with legalese, edu-jargon, and bureaucratic procedures, the principles can serve as guidelines for determining whether a particular school can meet a student’s individual needs.

Center co-founder and executive director Lauren Morando Rhim and chief of staff Lindsay Coker spoke to The 74 about how parents can use the principles, and what to look for and ask when visiting a prospective school.

1 Accessibility

How committed is the school to welcoming students with disabilities, making sure they have access to everything from the school building to its academic and enrichment offerings, and putting out the welcome mat by clearly communicating that commitment to the public?

This comes first, says Morando Rhim, because if a school isn’t accessible, the other elements on the list become irrelevant. “Can you get through the door both literally and figuratively?” she asks. “We’re not just talking about is there a [wheelchair] ramp in front of the school, but can the student be welcomed and access the full program as their typically developing peers?”

How to tell: Coker suggests looking at a school’s website or printed materials to get a sense of how the school presents itself. “Parents can look to see if there’s any messaging, and if that messaging indicates an openness and inclusiveness,” she says. “Do they include information about special ed programming? Does their application make a statement about equity, that they accept all students?”

2 Inclusion

How does the school provide for special education students with disabilities to spend as much time as possible in regular classrooms with classmates with and without disabilities? How does it anticipate and prevent issues and adjust lessons and activities to meet the needs of individual students? Are students with disabilities disciplined more often or more severely than their general education peers?

How to tell: A key here is to ask questions that will determine how personalized the plan for meeting each student’s needs is, says Morando Rhim. Inclusion is the goal — but it can be ambiguous. It can mean the school has strategies to help a special ed student work alongside the rest of the class — or it can obscure the fact that a student is simply not getting support.

By all means, visit several classrooms and the lunchroom, she says, but don’t count on being able to tell which students have disabilities and whether a group off in a corner getting separate instruction is in effect segregated within a regular classroom or receiving targeted support.

It’s probably more effective to listen for signs that general education and special education teachers collaborate in developing students’ individual plans.

“Parents having their ears fine-tuned for how schools talk about kids with disabilities can be really important,” says Morando Rhim. “When you walk into a school and the parent says, ‘So, tell me about the services you offer kids with disabilities,’ and the school says, ‘Oh, well, we offer full inclusion’ — end, period, hard stop. That’s what they do, which is very different than, ‘We like to get to know every student and we like to understand what their strengths are and where their challenges are in order for us to create a program that enables them to spend as much time as appropriate with their general ed peers.’”

Adds Coker: “That can also be ascertained by … speaking with special ed staff but also speaking with the administration and the general ed staff to see how they respond to some of these questions, because in a truly inclusive school there’s much more continuity between all the staff members and a much more conscious embracing of all students.”

3 Quality

A quality school will provide all students, with or without disabilities, with curriculum and materials backed by evidence and will collect and use data to determine whether students have mastered academic skills. It will also employ highly skilled teachers and supply them with top-notch ongoing training.

How to tell: Too often, school communities expect little of students with moderate to severe disabilities, shrugging off low test scores and other data points as a consequence of their disability and not as a sign that their supports need bolstering. Morando Rhim says parents should listen to discern whether a school uses data to pinpoint areas where students need help meeting challenges.

“That there are high expectations for students with disabilities that they’re going to achieve and they’re given the opportunity to stretch themselves and access the curriculum,” she explains. “That the school uses some data-tracking to track progress: ‘We’re trying this reading program and seeing if our kids are making progress, and if not, we’re sitting back and re-evaluating how we’re teaching them.’

“Are children with disabilities spending the majority of their time with qualified teachers, or are they spending most of their day with, say, a paraprofessional who might be very good but chances are doesn’t have the training to teach them the curriculum?”

4 Collaboration

How does the school work with students and families in drawing up the student’s plan and communicating progress toward its goals?

How to tell: Uncomfortable as it is, parents should hold the line until they are confident in their child’s plan, says Morando Rhim — “and recognize that their signature means something and they are equal participants,” she says. “You need to become an advocate and build up the knowledge to know [a proposal or action] is not appropriate and to say, ‘I recognize that you all wanted to be efficient here, but I’d really like to slow the process down and have a conversation.’ If the parent isn’t comfortable or able to do that, then my suggestion is to identify an advocate who can go with them.”

5 Accountability

Someone — a central district office, state department of education, or charter school authorizer — must monitor to make sure a school upholds the law and demonstrates “positive and measurable outcomes for educating students with disabilities.” Progress, in other words.

How to tell: “Conventional wisdom is that roughly 85 percent to 90 percent of students with all kinds of disabilities can be served in the general ed classroom and perform on par with their peers,” says Morando Rhim. “Because the fact that a kid has a learning disability or attention deficit has no reflection on intellect.”

Again, this is a place where listening to how the adults in a school discuss special ed is key, she says: “If I talked to a school and it’s clear from talking to them that they see a student having a disability as a predictor of that student never being able to succeed, that’s a red flag for me to ask more questions.”

6 Autonomy and Flexibility

This refers to schools that have the freedom to try novel approaches and to change and refine until they find a winning strategy. Too often, schools that have this opportunity fail to take advantage of it.

How to tell: “We’ve seen some charters default to the way traditional public schools have done [special education], which ends up being, ‘Well, let’s cluster all the kids in really restrictive settings because that’s the most efficient thing to do,’” says Morando Rhim. “We think charters have an opportunity to try to figure out how to serve kids with moderate to severe needs in a way that hopefully will avoid oversegregating kids and re-creating separate settings that have been so common in traditional public schools. So part of innovation is innovation toward inclusion. … To me, this is where the charter sector really has potential to improve outcomes for kids with disabilities.”

7 Resources

This means money — but also programs, facilities, and staff. Resources, or a lack thereof, should not guide decisions to deny students services or to serve them in segregated settings that are cheaper but not appropriate.

How to tell: “I’m struggling to imagine a situation where a parent doesn’t hear a tale of woe about resources that the school has to serve its learners with special needs,” says Morando Rhim. In many places, schools are underfunded, making it important for parents to get a sense of how a school budgets the resources it has. But in other places, resources are used inequitably.

“Is it consistently or universally resource-starved, or is it just the special ed program?” she asks. “This is an extreme, but if I walk into a school and I see a beautiful new football field and new grandstands and signs, but then there is a tale of woe about ‘I can’t afford to serve kids with disabilities,’ I’m going to try to figure out how to gently ask more about that.”

Regarding all seven principles, it’s a good idea for parents to identify someone in the school — a teacher or administrator, maybe —who is open to conversations about equity and to develop a relationship with that person.

“It’s challenging,” says Morando Rhim. “You start to recognize how different the expectations are for parents of kids who don’t have disabilities. But the practical reality is that if your child has a disability, you now are wearing a new hat — which is advocate.”

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and The 74.

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