on implementing special education in charter schools
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Operating a Charter School
This section provides an overview of critical issues and activities related to serving students with disabilities that you and your colleagues should address during day-to-day operation of your charter school. These may include curriculum implementation, staff and faculty hiring, student enrollment, fiscal issues and school accessibility. Ideally, you considered each of these issues during your pre-authorization and planning for startup phases. If not, don't despair – but do analyze your situation as soon as possible. You still have the opportunity to build on what you have in place so that your school can support all students including those with disabilities.
What special education services must a charter school provide?
The specific services that must be delivered by your charter school depend on the legal identity of your individual school and your linkage to an LEA. If your school is linked to an LEA (either a total-link or a partial-link), special education services will either be coordinated out of the district office as is done for other schools in the district, or delivered in another way as specified in a contract you have negotiated with the LEA.
The expectations for a charter school that is considered to be a separate LEA and has no link with another LEA are quite different: the charter school must ensure that each of its students with an IEP receives all special education supports identified in the student's IEP. The range of services and equipment may include related services, e.g., occupational and physical therapy, orientation and mobility training, adapted physical education, transportation, or assistive technology. This is not to say that the school must hire staff specifically to provide the services. Many charter schools have crafted creative solutions to providing services. Some of these include: contracting with a local school district to provide specific services, hiring a consultant or forming a cooperative with other charter schools.
Our curriculum was selected specifically for students with a particular disability (e.g., deafness). What should we do to make sure we can include students with other disabilities or those who do not have a disability?
If students who enroll have disabilities different from what your school expected, each one must be considered individually so that their needs can be met. In each case, the involvement of your charter school staff with the IEP team is critical. The need for prior planning to obtain special education capacity is obvious. Although it is impossible for a charter school to plan for every contingency prior to initial enrollment of students, general plans for a new charter school must include a grade-appropriate curriculum to be available for students without identified disabilities. Then, if a population with disabilities is targeted, adequate delivery strategies, personnel, tools and materials must be added for the expected needs.
A student with a significant disability has enrolled in our school. No one on our faculty has experience in this area. What should we do?
Ideally, a charter school representative would have been involved in the IEP team meeting to design the content of the IEP for the child's enrollment in your charter school and plans will be in place when the child enters. If that did not occur, the first step is for your charter school staff to review the child's special education records, especially the IEP, and analyze your existing capacity to deliver the instruction and related services as described. Just as any other public school is expected to do if a child moves in with an existing IEP, your charter school must try to implement the child's IEP or, if that does not appear to be possible, must convene the IEP team immediately to discuss appropriate options. As mentioned previously, one strategy that charter schools have found effective is incorporating into the IEP a provision for close tracking of the student's adjustment in the first 30 days at the charter school with a set date for the full IEP team to review progress and make any necessary revisions.
Remember to check with your SEA and charter school organizations in your area to determine if there is a cooperative that can provide support in this area. Many cooperatives have formed to provide technical support and resources to charter schools with children with significant or low-incidence disabilities. Some also provide direct services for these children.
May we limit the participation of students with disabilities to certain aspects of our school's program?
No. Consistent with civil rights laws, students with disabilities must be provided a range of choices in programs and activities that is comparable to that offered to students without disabilities. This includes an opportunity to participate in a range of nonacademic or extracurricular programs and activities offered at your charter school.
We plan to develop Individual Learning Plans for all of our students. Do we still have to develop IEPs for students with disabilities?
Yes. All students receiving special education services must have an IEP that is developed by a multidisciplinary team following the procedural requirements of IDEA and your state's special education law and regulations. The IEP may complement the plans your school will develop for all students. However, the IEP will be the legal, guiding document for all special education services provided to a child who has been found to be eligible for special education.
Are there special strategies we might use to attract and retain our personnel who work with children with disabilities?
In many parts of the country, demand for educators (particularly special educators) exceeds the supply. While there is no special "fix," several strategies have proved effective in reducing turnover. These include creating a mentor system for new special educators, implementing a peer support program and implementing an open-door discussion practice. Increasingly, research shows that the primary reasons special educators leave their positions are paperwork responsibilities, feelings of isolation from colleagues, high caseloads and multiple responsibilities. Specific upfront discussions about their individual roles in fulfilling the school's mission will help them to understand your school and their ability to help you meet your goals. It is extremely important that you are in frequent contact with your special educators to gauge satisfaction and/or frustration and explore strategies to minimize areas of difficulties.
What types of special education professional development should we offer our staff?
Charter schools need to provide professional development opportunities to a variety of different types of individuals. Clearly your instructional staff (including paraprofessionals) need to have ongoing access to training specifically focused on linking instruction, curriculum, and the school's mission to the individual needs of students. Successful practices in personnel retention also stress the importance of involving the staff members in the planning of their own professional development programs.
What type of professional development would benefit our board members and other volunteers?
Your charter school board members and other volunteers should be appropriately included in professional development opportunities. They will benefit from very focused, ongoing training in the charter school's responsibilities for students with disabilities as well as educational management issues. Given the strong charter school focus on parental involvement, it is important to reach out to parents and family members of students with disabilities to ensure they are part of the activities that involve all parents and meet their needs for information. Equally important, you, the operator, should take time to participate in ongoing professional development.
Charter schools can tap into a variety of networks to learn more about special education in general and issues related to special education in charter schools specifically. Following is a partial list of resources that will be useful to you during the planning and operation of your charter school.
Governmental Agencies and Offices
National Special Education Networks
The following is a list of networks to learn more about special education in general and issues related to special education in charter schools specifically.
National Charter School Networks
What should we do when our special education program costs more than the funding we receive from our state and the federal government?
Lack of funds is not a legal reason for denying services to a child who is eligible for special education. The manner in which your charter school may seek additional support to pay for required special education services depends on a number of factors, such as the provisions of your charter and any contracts you have with an LEA, state funding policy and your school's LEA status and linkage to another LEA. Revisions to IDEA passed in 2004 permit states to establish risk pools to assist LEAs in addressing the needs of "high need children with disabilities." The law specifically includes charter schools that are LEAs as eligible to participate. Operators should know if such a resource exists in their state and obtain specific details about how the program works.
We don't provide transportation to students. Must we provide it for students in special education?
If your school provides transportation to and from school or financial support (e.g., tokens) for nondisabled students for that kind of transportation, then you need to do the same for students with disabilities. If you do not provide this support in general, then you typically do not need to provide it to students with disabilities. However, if an IEP team identifies transportation as a related service on a child's IEP, then your school will need to arrange for transportation services or see that the responsible entity does so. As your IEP team considers a student's need for transportation, it is critical that team members understand the difference between a student's need for transportation to get to school (common for all students) and a student's need as a result of a disability (which results in the need for a related service). If your charter school is responsible to provide this related service, you may contract for it or pay the family to transport the child to and from school or the location of the special services.
What are our responsibilities to conduct "Child Find" activities?
Your charter school's responsibilities for Child Find depend on its LEA status. IDEA requires each state to have in effect policies and procedures to ensure that "all children with disabilities residing in the State, including children with disabilities who are homeless children or are wards of the State, and children with disabilities attending private schools, regardless of the severity of their disability, and who are in need of special education and related services are identified, located, and evaluated" [CFR Sec.300.111(a)(1)(i)]. States develop procedures that their LEAs must follow to carry out these responsibilities. If your charter school is its own LEA for special education, you must follow state procedures just like any other LEA. However, a charter school does not have jurisdiction over a geographical area as most traditional LEAs do, so the actual implementation of Child Find responsibilities by charter schools will differ. Charter schools are responsible for children only when they are actually enrolled in the charter school. It is clear that all charter schools must conduct Child Find activities for their full student population so that children who may need special education are appropriately identified and, if necessary, referred for evaluation. A state may have developed specific instructions for charter schools with regard to Child Find that you as the school operator must learn, understand and follow.
What should we do if a teacher or parent suspects a child might benefit from special education?
Parents and teachers must be given clear information about the procedures that will be followed in your charter school concerning the rights of a child to an evaluation for special education. Parents and teachers must also be fully aware of other services your school provides (e.g., a student assistance team to provide help) prior to a formal special education evaluation referral. Federal and state law and regulations contain numerous specific requirements related to procedural safeguards and your teachers, parents and board members should be made familiar with them.
Every charter school should have clear procedures in place for attending to the needs of a child who is not progressing or is presenting other kinds of problems. Putting such procedures in place should be a part of planning before start-up so that they do not have to be developed in a crisis situation.
How many special education forms and reports do we have to complete?
Your school's responsibility in this area will vary based on your contract, state law and the state-determined legal identity of your charter school and its linkage to an LEA. If your charter school is required to have its own IEP team and carry out all the responsibilities for evaluation, the paperwork is the same as required for other LEAs. If your charter school does not have to carry out the IEP team process, your staff will, at a minimum, have to participate in the IEP process to represent the charter school and provide progress information to the child's LEA.
Regardless of your specific requirements, it is very important that you, as the charter operator, understand the nature of your school's responsibilities and ensure your entire charter school staff has a clear understanding of the reporting responsibilities to avoid violations that might make the school vulnerable to non-compliance charges. Depending on your contract, state law, or linkage, your paperwork responsibilities may include financial/funding, staffing, child count, identification and evaluation, IEP development and monitoring, and student progress. Deciding who will be responsible for what paperwork (followed by training to do this) will help to ensure completion of all requirements by competent, qualified individuals. Since student-focused paperwork can be very time consuming, many charter schools alter a special educator's teaching load or provide additional compensation. Some states have recognized the need for charter schools to have access to the services provided by a special education administrator to assist in the management of the complex responsibilities required by federal and state law. For example, Minnesota and Florida have made funds available to support such services for their charter schools.
Who is responsible for developing our students' IEPs?
Responsibility for IEP development depends largely on the specific arrangements for your school as reflected in your contract, state law, and the linkage to an LEA. The procedures to be followed in your charter school should be clearly written in school policies. Generally, if your school has a total-link, most IEP development will be coordinated by the school district while, in partial-link charter schools, the process will vary depending on state law and contract. No-link charter schools will, most likely, have sole responsibility for developing IEPs for their students with disabilities.
Who should be involved in the development of a student IEP?
Current IDEA requirements provide that IEPs are to be developed by a team whose membership includes a parent of the child with a disability, one regular education teacher of the child, one special education teacher of the child, an administrative representative of the LEA, individuals who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results, other individuals with knowledge and expertise regarding the child and (as appropriate) the child.The IDEA does allow that a member of the IEP Team shall not be required to attend an IEP meeting, in whole or in part, if the parent of a child with a disability and the local educational agency agree in writing that the attendance of such member is not necessary. The law also allows for participation in a meeting by conference call or other electronic means.
What does the IEP need to include?
According to the IDEA, an IEP for each child with a disability must include:
In addition, for children age 16 and above, there are requirements for addressing transition needs that must be addressed in the IEP process.
The IEP is not to be a curriculum for the child. Rather it is to serve as a guide for how to "open the doors" to improve access to the general education curriculum and the necessary special education and related services that will allow the child to progress.
Is there a specific form that must be used for IEPs?
While some states have developed IEP templates that all LEAs are to use, other states have granted LEAs the autonomy to develop their own IEP format as long as it meets federal and state requirements. Developing an IEP form that meets legal requirements and is userfriendly is an extremely complicated task. If your state does not have a mandated form, take advantage of existing resources, such as the forms developed by LEAs or resource centers in your state instead of reinventing the wheel.
Do we have to develop an IEP for every child with a disability?
An IEP must be developed for every child found eligible for special education services under IDEA. Whether or not you have full or partial responsibility for developing IEPs for students who attend your charter school, your staff must participate in IEP meetings to provide the necessary information about the child's school progress. It is also important that you develop appropriate procedures for the required progress reporting to parents and all necessary input from the charter school for other special education reporting.
What is our school's responsibility when a child with a disability transfers to another school?
As with any other child, when a student with a disability transfers to another school, you must ensure timely transfer of all records. At the point that the child is formally no longer enrolled in your charter school, your school no longer has a responsibility to provide services to the child.
Summary and Key Points
As you move through the day-to-day operation of your school, you will find that often you have to focus on a "challenge of the moment" related to students with disabilities. If you have planned carefully to put strategies in place for handling special education issues, they will not reach the crisis stage. Occasionally, you should take the time to revisit your mission and vision and have specific discussions on how all of your students and staff are doing. Remember to consult with resources available in your local school district, state education office, or charter authorizer. Depending on your school's LEA linkage and your state law and charter contract, you can expect to receive advice and/or regulatory guidance from these offices. Taking time to address students with disabilities in a proactive and positive manner will have significant payoffs for your students, school and the community.