New Jersey D.O.E., Denies Proposal for Charter School to Serve Children with Autism

Speaking of charter schools and students with disabilities , a series of documents came through the transom last week regarding a charter school application to the New Jersey Department of Education. The applicants proposed a charter school called the Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy that would serve children with autism in Lakewood and Howell. The application was denied.

Happens all the time, right? More applications are denied than approved, and that’s appropriate. But in this particular case the D.O.E.’s process for charter review appears to have been undermined by a misunderstanding of charter school law, as well as best practices in special education.

There are no charter schools in New Jersey that exclusively serve students with disabilities, although other cities have had much success with this model.  Parents of children with high-cost disabilities like autism in this state choose either traditional district offerings, usually self-contained classrooms, or avail themselves of the many private special education schools, represented by ASAH, that provide specialized programs at district expense. (See my analysis here.)  Costs are very high: the D.O.E.’s tuition list of private special ed schools, just out last month, approved annual tuition costs of $111,080 at Princeton Child Development Institute and $129,678 at Somerset Hills Learning Institute. Both these schools restrict enrollment to children with severe autism disorders.

But a charter school for students with autistic spectrum disorders is an innovative and original idea, right in line with N.J.’s charter school law. The  Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy is modeled after successful special education charter schools in New York City and Phoenix, so educators know that this works. Holistic's application proposes to start off with three classes of six students each (considered best practices in the autism education community) in grades K-2 and prudently expand over four years to nine classes of six students, grades K-5.

But the D.O.E. denied the application on three grounds. They are summed up in this section of the D.O.E. denial letter:
The primary focus on serving a special needs population, specifically students on the Autism Disorder spectrum, raises serious concerns regarding the school’s ability to serve a representative cross section of the community’s school age population, which is a statutory requirement. This is not a feasible model under current charter school law in New Jersey. In addition, the proposed enrollment (6 students per classroom, total of 18 students) makes it extremely challenging to be a viable charter school. Furthermore, no one on the founding team has experience running an educational institution.
Let’s take these one objections one at a time. First of all, there is nothing in N.J.’s charter school law that bars charter schools that exclusively serve students with autism. In fact, students on the autism represent an increasing “cross section of the community’s school age population." (Currently, one in 48 New Jersey children receive an autism diagnosis.)  Also, the applicants took care to reach out to the Hispanic community, which is an increasing proportion of the proposed charter's catchment area.

In fact, the proposal does meet statutory requirements.  In a rebuttal to the D.O.E.’s denial, Holistic quotes state statute and then responds to the D.O.E.'s claim that a charter school devoted to autism violates state statute::
Pursuant to N.J.S.A.18A:36-7, (CHARTER SCHOOL PROGRAM ACT OF 1995, N.J.S.A. 18A:36A: Effective January 1996, Amended November 2000 – Herein known as “The Act”), a charter school may “limit admission to a particular grade level or to areas of concentrations of the school, such as mathematics, science, or the arts”. 
The Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy, in keeping with the school’s mission, has a concentrated specialized curriculum for the education of students with ASD. Thus, admission will be limited to students with ASD.  In view of the school’s mission, this is the necessary criterion to evaluate prospective students in alignment with the New Jersey Charter School Program Act.   Current NJ Charter Law allows for sufficient flexibility to allow for a school focused on high need students in various areas of disciplines. 
Second, the D.O.E. objects to Holistic’s model of six students in a classroom with one teacher. This ratio is considered best practices for providing educational services to children with autism.  Whoever read this application didn’t know anything about special education or chose to ignore his or her knowledge.

Thirdly, the D.O.E. objects to Holistic because “no one of the founding team has experience running an educational institution.” In fact, according to applicant Yakov Halberstam, one of the founders is Gitty Endzweig, who spent fifteen years running a private/public school for autism in Brooklyn. (N.J. doesn’t have that private/public designation). Also, numerous other people on the board have clinical experience with autism.

Just as inconsistent as the D.O.E.’s denial rationale is the fact that in 2011 the D.O.E. approved a charter school for children with autism in Newark.  In its acceptance letter to the founder of the Forest Hills Charter School, Michelle Adubato, Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks writes, “It is my honor to inform you that the application for Forest Hills Charter School , serving the students of Newark, is approved with a planning year." The proposed school's  website (Ms. Adubato withdrew the application the following year) says that “Forest Hill is dedicated to serving children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and pervasive developmental delays (PDD). The school will provide a specialized supportive learning environment for students ranging from ages 5 to 21.”

For what it's worth, Sen. President Steve Sweeney wrote a letter supporting Forrest Hills. I know he knows charter school law, as well as the world of special education.

Why did the D.O.E. evaluators of the Holistic application base their denial on such shaky ground? Why would they approve a similar charter school in North Jersey but not one in South Jersey? More importantly, why would the D.O.E. stymie a potential recourse for parents who struggle every day with the hardships of raising and educating a child with severe autism?

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