Reconciling Higher Expectation with Behavioral Differences: The Case of Brooklyn's Achievement First Charter School

Today’s New York Times details a lawsuit pressed by the New York Legal Assistance Group on behalf of five special education students who attend a Crown Heights, Brooklyn charter school, Achievement First. The suit describes a “systemic failure to provide them a free appropriate public education, in violation of their rights.” Specifically, “students did not get physical therapy and other services for weeks at a time, and that a student with autism was disciplined for not looking in the direction a teacher instructed or for hiding under his desk.”

If the plaintiffs are correct, then there’s all sorts of wrong here. Students with disabilities cannot be disciplined for behaviors that derive from their disability. (People with autism, for example, often avoid eye contact because of sensory integration disorders. They’re not misbehaving; they’re protecting themselves.) And schools must provide services, like physical, speech, and occupational therapies, that are itemized in Individual Education Plans. Failure to do so is a violation of state and federal law.

But let’s not place that wrongness solely on the backs of charter schools. Traditional schools do this all the time. Bad press directed towards  Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies aside, this is a systemic problem, not a charter one.

And the Times article confirms this:  advocates and families “say that in both charters and traditional public schools, it can often be a struggle to ensure children with disabilities receive the services to which they are entitled.”

Any parent of a special needs child knows that compliance with an I.E.P. is hit and miss. I’m one of these parents so you can trust me on this:  sadly and infuriatingly, public schools, both charter and traditional, sometimes fail to adhere to I.E.P. contractual mandates. For example, earlier this year  the N.J. Department of Education found that “Paterson Public Schools violated special education regulations by changing students’ instructional plans without getting requisite consent from their parents, according to public documents.” Just last month, a special state monitor from the DOE found that Newark Public Schools failed abysmally to provide services to children with disabilities in a prompt manner.

In another case filed by a group of disability rights organization represented by Education Law Center, a number of N.J. school districts, not just poor ones like Paterson and Newark, agreed to a settlement that found them out of compliance with providing special needs children with an education in the “least restrictive environment,” an IDEA mandate. (For more on N.J.'s expensive and segregating habit of sending kids to restrictive placements, see my commentary here.)

And, of course, this isn't just a N.J. problem anymore than this is just a charter problem. Today  Robert Ponderisco reports on the case of "Adrian," a young boy enrolled in the posh Westchester, N.Y. district of Irvington Public Schools who, despite a classification of behavioral disability,  endured "countless suspensions for countless issues" until his parents removed him to a more receptive public district. Said Adrian's mom, "the school got rid of him by excessive penalties and suspensions."

Schools, regardless of governance, have always struggled with integrating wide spectra of students. But this enterprise just got a lot harder because we've raised academic expectations  (Common Core) and raised the stakes (college/career readiness). It's not enough for kids, rich or poor, white or black, behaviorally-challenged or straight-laced, to just muddle through.  It's not enough for teachers to have desultory classroom management skills. We expect more from everyone. And these expectations can clash with the needs of children with disabilities, who often need more time and more nurturing and more lattitude.

So, we're faced with a set of new questions or, maybe, the same set of questions in a different context. When does the desideratum of inclusion come at the cost of classmates' progress? How do we efficiently provide teachers with adequate supports so that they can truly differentiate instruction? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Does this have to be a zero-sum game?

I hope not.

Schools, of course, should always comply with I.E.P.'s and deliver on what is not only promised but mandated.  That's easy, or at least easy to say. What's more interesting is this sudden flurry of attention to student behavior just as we're elevating expectations for this ever-expanding gamut of American schoolchildren.

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