Opinion

Hughes: New $10 Million Grant Program Seeks to Build Better Options for Middle and High School Students With Mild and Moderate Disabilities

By Bob Hughes | March 4, 2020

Ben Marcovitz is on a mission. Like many other parents of students with disabilities across the country, he is fighting to ensure that his young daughter Zoe gets the best education possible. Zoe has developmental delays, and Ben and his wife, Meredith, have committed themselves to finding a school that would nurture Zoe’s love of learning. Yet, as the founder and CEO of Collegiate Academies, five public charter high schools in Louisiana, Ben felt increasingly frustrated. In visit after visit, he was told the school did not offer the kind of programming Zoe needed. Ben’s experience has fueled his passion to ensure that more charter schools serve students with disabilities. His question: “How do we make it wonderful for schools to serve all kids, and not just admirable?”

It’s a challenge shared by many: 1 in 5 children in the U.S. has learning and attention issues, and the statistics paint a sobering picture — only 20 percent of students with disabilities nationally score at proficient levels on state assessments. Further, on average, fewer than 70 percent earn a high school diploma within four years, compared with 85 percent for all students. Add to that the compounding effect that race and class have on the experience of students in special education, and it’s clear that our education system is in crisis.

This week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is announcing an investment of more than $10 million to launch the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community, a cohort of 10 charter management organizations that will work together with the common aim of improving the systems, learning experiences and outcomes for their middle and high school students with mild and moderate disabilities.

Each CMO, including Collegiate Academies, will identify its own network’s goal and create an action plan to improve leading indicators in one or more of the following: math; English; student engagement, including attendance and discipline; or transition to postsecondary life. Each CMO will start with two schools in its network, with the intention of learning what it takes to expand these best practices network-wide over time.

We believe that all students, including students receiving special education services, deserve a great education that enables them to graduate and pursue a path toward economic self-sufficiency. To better understand the needs of students with mild and moderate disabilities, we initiated a series of grants over the past year to review the literature, better understand educator perspectives and experiences, and identify best practices in charter schools that serve special education students well. In one study, we gained a better understanding of how race and class created a gap between the experiences encountered by students of color and their white, middle-class peers with the same special education designation. Black and brown special education students tend to be less supported, have less access to rigorous curriculum and receive greater school-sanctioned punishment than their white peers.

Our findings over the past year have led us to hypothesize that there are three key enabling conditions that drive outcomes for this group of students:

● Leader and staff commitment to collective responsibility for all students

● Capacity for disaggregated, data-based decision-making

● Commitment to continuous improvement

The specific implementation of these factors varies. Like all effective practices, they need to be constantly adapted to meet the needs and interests of students and their families and align with the focus and capacity of the individual school.

We know that thousands of educators are working on issues surrounding students with disabilities. We are initially starting with the charter sector, with its origins as education innovators, believing it can leverage its autonomy, flexibility and commitment to equity to innovate to meet the needs of these students.

This investment is part of our broader commitment to encourage schools to work together in networks, where they learn more quickly than they do by working alone. That is the strategy we’re employing with our Networks for School Improvement. We expect that lessons around the needs of students with disabilities will likely emerge from this networked approach, as well as around key questions such as how to best help students stay on track in eighth and ninth grades.

In this and all our work, our goal is to support partner educators to identify and implement evidence-based practices that positively move the needle for all students. We hope these practices can be scaled across networks and into the broader public school system over time.

Ultimately, Ben and Meredith were able to enroll Zoe in a school that meets her needs and her parents’ expectations. We need more options for parents of students with disabilities in the years ahead. We hope this work alongside our grantees can be a small step that starts that broader process.

Bob Hughes is K-12 director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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