As I wandered through the bustling halls of the Austin Convention Center listening to teachers collaborate with administers, authorizers, and state leaders, I noticed one conversation occurring with shocking regularity. Passionate educators repeatedly pondered how best to serve students with diverse learning needs. The fact that these conversations happened at the largest gathering of public charter school teachers and leaders in the country came as no surprise. After all, thousands convene every year at the National Charter Schools Conference to discuss the hottest topics within the charter sector and public education more broadly. Everyone seemed to agree that a “one size fits all” model fails to meet the needs of these students effectively. The incredible variety within special education and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) framework creates a complex area for schools and special education teachers to navigate. Many schools serving students with disabilities consider flexibility and innovation crucial to their success. For that reason, autonomy extended by state charter school laws offer new insights into the future of special education.
While many education leaders view charter schools at the forefront of innovation, some aspects of special education remain the same across all public schools. The Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, Lauren Morando Rhim, stresses that “federal law requires schools to enroll and integrate students with IEPs into classrooms to the greatest extent appropriate under the principle that the least restrictive environment fulfilling a child’s needs creates the most optimal learning environment.” Decades of research, federal statutes, case law, legal guidance, and advocates support this method of inclusion. These standards require that schools provide highly individualized accommodations and modifications. All too often, schools rely on basic compliance to measure the effectiveness of special education support and services; however, many advocates believe schools need to innovate much more to better suit the needs of all students and identify metrics that reward schools for providing high-quality support and services to diverse learners. This creates a challenge requiring far more attention than it currently receives, and one that places charter schools in a position to lead the conversation.
In pursuit of schools that handle this challenge innovatively and successfully, I stumbled upon the Community Charter School of Cambridge (CCSC) in Massachusetts, where roughly 20 percent of students receive special education services. CCSC brilliantly incorporates special education teachers into general education classrooms to co-teach alongside teachers using traditional curriculum. They utilize an innovative strategy focusing on collaboration between special education and general education teachers in combination with real-time data. This feeds into their support system known as the learning lab, where students utilize a personalized learning strategy developed to reinforce material. Rather than using learning labs for content recover like other special education programs, the learning labs at CCSC work towards IEP goals while reinforcing difficult subject material. The meticulous collection of data and co-planning and collaboration between special education learning specialists and teachers in traditional classrooms help ensure every step a student takes leads them in the right direction. This program consistently produces high-quality education for a broad group of students with diverse learning needs. Rosie Galvin, who leads their special education department, explained "At CCSC, students with special needs are integrated into the classroom and are well supported by systems in place that ensure they make effective progress toward IEP goals. Special education teachers work closely with content teachers to ensure accommodations and modifications are implemented with fidelity and they maintain well-oiled data tracking systems to continually monitor progress toward IEP goals as a means of planning for future instruction."
This method helps bring out the best in students with IEPs; however, not all students integrate well into a general education classroom setting. Students requiring significant support or frequent medical treatments sometimes require a more specialized facility to appropriately meet their needs. To learn more about how charter schools serve these students stay tuned for next month’s blog when I explore how one school serving students with significant support needs in South Carolina leverages charter-district collaboration to support their students successfully.
Jamison White is the Manager of Data and Research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.