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Charter Schools Pulling the Bait and Switch on Learning Disabilities?

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At the monthly informational meeting for School District 11 about 60 parents and 20 presenters spoke to a panel of representatives of elected officials and Assemblyman Michael Benedetto. The presenters and parents were expressing their concerns about schools in their district, one of which was the treatment of learning disabled students in the area charter schools.

Leonie Haimson, an advocate for smaller class size in public schools, pointed out that school overcrowding, in this northern section of the Bronx dominated by Co-op City, revealed the trend in the last few years of Mayor Bloomberg's Administration in his governance of the public schools. Haimson indicated that although the state had mandated that the city reduce class sizes, they had instead increased sharply in the last two years -- the biggest jump in eleven years -- with more than half of kindergarten classes in the district now with twenty-five or more children.

Haimson emphasized that many studies have shown that smaller classes improve learning but an inadequate number of new schools are being built to accommodate the increase in the student population. As a solution to the problem, Haimson suggested that $1 billion presently being allocated to build new prisons be used to build new schools.

The issue of charter schools and their influence on the district was raised by Assemblyman Michael Benedetto. Benedetto, himself a NYC classroom teacher for thirty years, expressed his "dismay" at Chancellor Klein's praising and promotion of charter schools to the detriment of district schools. Benedetto also pointed out a pattern in which charter schools take needed space away from their host schools and called for a State hearing so that the Chancellor could be taken to task for his policies favoring charter schools.

One of the most serious concerns of presenters and charter and district school parents was the treatment of children with learning disabilities. Patricia Connelly, a prominent advocate for learning disabled children who herself has an LD child in school, described the crisis in the special needs programs citywide. According to her, only 23,000 children are being adequately served out of 235,000 that are eligible for such programs. Connelly emphasized that in order for such students to be able to learn up to their abilities they must get early intervention, but that is not happening nearly as often as needed.

Connelly pointed out that by the time most of these students are given the necessary referral for specialized instruction, the specialists that practice in their neighborhoods are booked to capacity. This forces LD students and their parents to travel as much as one hour into Manhattan to have access to effective instruction, those fortunate enough to receive it at all. A symptom of the neglect these students suffer is that the position of Deputy Chief Special Education officer who is responsible for administrating these programs has been left vacant by the Department of Education since late last year.

The United Federation of Teachers found that when they called up from the list of providers for learning disabilities that the DOE had issued, only 3% even bothered to answer their query and none of those were available for placement of an LD child.

Some of the testimonies of parents of children in charter schools accused these schools of not adequately addressing the needs of their children. The approach to recruiting these children, according to such parents as Lori Gill whose son attends an Equality Charter School in the Bronx, is to "bait and switch," promising that LD children who attend their school will have their needs met but once the child is enrolled, not fulfilling their promise. Now, because of class bullying, her child is afraid to return to the school.

I have interviewed parents from a number of charter schools around the city who have learning disabled children with special needs. They have consistently complained that the charter schools their children attend are not having their needs met and allege that these schools are collecting the extra funds allocated by the DOE for these children's instruction after they have left the school. If there is any substance to these allegations, they should be investigated. But the statistics on the disproportionately small number of LD and ELL students (English Language Learners) enrolled in charter schools compared to district schools indicate that these most vulnerable of young learners are not having their needs adequately served by charter schools.