By Robin Urevich
Charter schools — public schools run by parents, teachers and others largely free of state and local regulations — were designed to provide competition for traditional public schools, forcing them to improve, or lose students.
But the schools’ detractors argue that charters sometimes look better on paper than they are in reality. One complaint: they raise their test scores, and hurt disadvantaged students, by enrolling fewer special education students than they should.
One Los Angeles neighborhood suggests that the picture is more complicated. In 2011, a charter, Sandra Cisneros Learning Academy, opened within the local traditional school’s attendance area, and since then, Rosemont Avenue Elementary School has been struggling to compete.
Special education student enrollment has soared at Rosemont, but not necessarily because disabled students are shut out at Sandra Cisneros. Still, students with severe disabilities are not attending Cisneros, suggesting the school might not be fully compliant with its duty to educate special education students.
Ana Ponce, the executive director of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, which operates the school and six others in Central LA, says all students within the school’s attendance area are welcome, regardless of disabilities.
At Cisneros, 11 percent of students have a disability, slightly less than the Los Angeles Unified School District average.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Jennie Clemons, Camino Nuevo’s director of special education, offered a lightning quick 30-minute look at how disabled kids are taught at the charter.
Cisneros, the Chicana author for whom the school is named, beams from a brightly colored mural at the front door; inside the building is bright and airy.
In one classroom, seventh graders sit at long tables arranged in a square facing teacher Ann Caimi, who reads a passage from a story, and then asks the students to scan a list of words and choose which ones describe its tone.
“Relaxed,” one student calls out.
“How do you know?,” questions Caimi.
“They’re safe and laughing,” another student says of the story’s characters.
“Look how many other beautiful words you could have chosen,” Caimi continued.
Caimi is a special ed teacher, but on this day, she stands in front of the class while the general education teacher Donya Villanueva patrols the room to make sure students are on track.
Meanwhile a special ed teaching assistant sits next to a boy in a striped t-shirt, whispering questions and urging him to raise his hand. Across the room is a second aide, paired with another special education student.
Those who need even more help get it either in small groups or one-on-one outside of the classroom.
This year, Cisneros’ 69 special ed students are all taught in general education classrooms, said Atyani Howard, Camino Nuevo’s Chief Academic Officer.
She points to federal law that requires schools to educate special education students in the most inclusive way possible.
“Through our own research, that’s what’s best for our students socially and emotionally,” Howard said. “Kids being fully included helps to diminish the stigma [of special education].”
She said special ed students’ test scores have improved, and individual kids are thriving.
At Cisneros, 75 percent of the children who need special education require help with speech or learning disabilities. Nine percent are autistic. None are so severely disabled as to require special classes.
For years, Frederick Weintraub has monitored the LA school district’s compliance with federal special education law as part of a lawsuit settlement. In 2009, he found charters did not educate their share of disabled students, enrolling far fewer than traditional schools. But Weintraub said that charters have improved since then.
“What hasn’t improved is that charters take kids with more mild disabilities that are lower cost, kids that require less intervention and services,” Weintraub said. “The school says you’re welcome to apply, but we don’t currently have a program.”
But charters are not entirely to blame, Weintraub said. Services for severely disabled kids are costly and time consuming.
“It’s very hard to organize [a program] around one or two or three kids,” he said.
Still the lopsided system is a real problem, said Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer.
“I spend 60 percent of my time on special ed—making sure charters serve their fair share of students, “ Zimmer said.
Weintraub added that some charters have begun to pool their resources to offer services for disabled students, and at Camino Nuevo, Ponce insisted that if a student needed a service the school doesn’t currently offer, her organization would create it.
But a half-mile away at Rosemont Elementary, services for more severely disabled kids are already in place. Unlike at Cisneros, four special education classes serve kids who are unable to learn in general education classrooms. Consequently, when the charter school opened and Rosemont’s attendance began to decline, school district officials placed more disabled students from outside Rosemont’s attendance area at the school.
Seventeen percent of its students have a disability, compared to 12 percent in the school district as a whole.
“Kids are placed at Rosemont by the central office,” said Rosemont assistant principal Sara Garcia. “We have no choice if there is a student who needs this support.”
Charters are intended to “promote vigorous, healthy competition to stimulate improvement in all schools,” according to Los Angeles Unified School District board policy.
But with the school district adding to Rosemont’s special ed population, the school could struggle to compete.
Rosemont is clean and bustling. Student work—drawings and short essays—fill bulletin boards and classroom walls.
Its standardized test scores—the measure parents are encouraged to consider when evaluating a school— are significantly lower than those of Cisneros’ students. All students, including disabled students, are included in a schools’ overall score. However, even when comparing students without disabilities, Rosemont still lags behind Cisneros in all grade levels in math and English.
Rosemont’s categorical program coordinator Maria Rodriguez noted that test scores don’t tell the whole story. Her own child, she said, has a wonderful teacher in a traditional public school that’s considered low performing.
Rodriguez said she and others at the school initially worked to convince parents to keep their kids at Rosemont, with some success. But now, she said, the thinking is, “Let’s give our all to the students we do have. They’re here and deserve our best.”
Still, if scores continue to decline, parents could opt for other schools, further depressing enrollment, thereby potentially forcing teacher lay-offs, reducing funding for Rosemont, and making it harder for the school to improve.
A 2005 Rand Corporation paper found that competition from charter schools was not Improving the performance of traditional public schools.
The vast majority of principals in Los Angeles and four other California school districts said charters had little effect on their schools, however, 25 percent said they’d changed instructional practices and professional development since the establishment of a nearby charter.
The study’s author Ron Zimmer (no relation to school board member Steve Zimmer), now a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, noted that the results could be different today because so many more charters have sprung up in LA and in the other four districts he studied.
But school board member Zimmer said that currently traditional schools barely stand a chance now because of budget cuts. Charter schools often operate with less funding than traditional schools but can sometimes offer more services because they are free to spend their budgets as they wish.
“We never competed,” Zimmerman said. “We practically begged people to leave.”
The number of charters in the LA district spiked beginning in 2008, just as the economy collapsed and traditional schools slashed arts and other enrichment programs, Zimmer explained. Parents flocked to charters because in many cases, the new schools were able to offer them.
“The only way this changes in the long run is we make a strategic investment and actually compete and believe we have something to offer,” Zimmer said, adding that the district must reestablish the programs families care about, like arts, athletics and libraries and properly regulate charters.