Meet Three Charter Schools Successfully Serving Students with Disabilities

Charter schools were created to give parents more options for their children. Although they have been around since 1992 and their numbers continue to expand (to about 6,700 today), charter schools remain under the radar for many parents of children with disabilities. While 43 states have charter schools, a higher percentage of students with disabilities enroll in traditional public schools (12 percent) than in charter schools (10 percent).

With greater freedom to innovate than traditional public school classrooms, some charter schools may hold particular promise for students with disabilities, who by law are entitled to receive an education tailor-made to their needs.

Their promise can be seen in three charter schools where students with disabilities exceeded district achievement averages for reading and math. Though the schools do not specialize in serving students with disabilities, at least 20 percent of students have disabilities in two of the schools. All three emphasize inclusiveness, while addressing the individual needs of students with disabilities. All students take classes together. And all three schools mainly enroll students of color.

Videos produced in 2014 and 2015 for the Education Department's National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) by AIR and Safal Partners highlight some of the practices that school staff, parents, and students say contribute to their schools’ success.

Two Rivers Public Charter School, founded by a group of parents in Washington, D.C., opened its doors in 2004 and was serving 516 students a decade later in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Students were 63 percent Black, 26 percent White, 9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 1 percent Asian. About 22 percent receive special education services and almost half of all students were economically disadvantaged. That year, Two Rivers’ students scored at or above proficiency in reading on state standardized tests—at a higher rate than all D.C. students in reading (68 percent vs. 50 percent) and in math (70 percent vs. 54 percent).

As early as the first grade, students at Two Rivers are encouraged to participate in the development of their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. This document, updated annually, outlines each student’s learning needs, educational goals, and supports, services, and accommodations the school will provide. At most schools only secondary school students are invited to help shape IEPs, but Two Rivers found younger students to be quite adept at advocating for themselves. “Students are much more comfortable in discussing their needs and what’s working for them and what’s not working for them,” one special education coordinator said.

Afya Public Charter Middle School, which opened in Baltimore in 2007, serves grades six through eight. In 2013-14, 98 percent of its students were Black, and 20 percent were students with disabilities. That year, Afya had one of the lowest suspension rates (27 percent) and highest attendance rates (97 percent daily) in Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS). On state standardized tests in 2014-15, 67 percent of Afya students scored proficient or above in reading (five points higher than all BCPS students) and 51 percent scored proficient or above in math (nine points higher than all BCPS students).

Afya offers individualized instruction to all its students, and all take part in curriculum and activities tied to the school's signature focus—lifelong healthy living habits. And all spend 65 minutes a day in physical activities. “It’s a great way,” one administrator said, “to build relationships with people that we might not normally work with.”

Brooke Roslindale Charter School in Boston opened in 2002 and now serves 485 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Most are Black (69 percent); 24 percent are Hispanic. In reading, 96 percent of Brooke Roslindale students scored proficient or above on 2013–14 state standardized tests, compared with 56 percent of all Boston Public School (BPS) students. The gap in average math scores was even wider: 93 percent for Brooke Roslindale students; 49 percent for all BPS students. About 6 percent of students enrolled in 2013 were students with disabilities.

A student needn’t be classified as having special needs to receive support from a special education teacher or intervention specialist, and general education teachers similarly serve special education students when appropriate. “At Brooke, we have sort of a nice hybrid," one service provider said. "We look at data and we see that it’s working.” Teachers and service providers, such as the speech pathologist and student support coordinators, participate in a three-hour in-school professional development session every week to discuss their successes and consider adjustments.

There is not enough evidence yet to know exactly what comprises “quality special education” in charter schools. But these three schools demonstrate that hallmark of charter schools—flexibility—and that attention to the individual needs of students may yield positive results. Policies to support public awareness of successful charter school practices can help parents decide what’s best for their children.

Zena Rudo is a senior researcher at AIR specializing in charter school research. Other members of AIR’s Charter School Work Group contributed to this post.