Dismissed teacher raises questions about special ed at charter school

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On Thursday, Nov. 20, officials at Perspectives Charter Schools received a letter alleging that special education students at one of its campuses are not receiving adequate services, and that another letter was on its way to the Illinois State Board of Education. 

The same day, one of the five teachers who signed off on that letter says she was fired and escorted out of the school. Chantelle Allen says special needs juniors, among other issues at the Perspectives Calumet Tech high school, have not been receiving services that are stipulated in their individual education plans.

“That’s what charter schools can get away with,” contends Allen, a mid-career special education teacher who has worked at Calumet Tech since it opened in 2006.

Allen notes that previously, special education students were adequately provided for, but this fall, the population jumped from 50 to more than 100. Yet, she says the school did not hire enough special education staff, which led to service shortages.

According to spokesman Matt Vanover, the Illinois Board of Education received the formal complaint submitted on Nov. 21 by Allen and the other teachers, and officials will conduct an on-site visit soon. The state has 60 days to conduct an investigation.
 
Other allegations in the teachers’ letter (PDF) suggest:

• Sophomores receive special education services in core subjects, but not in Spanish and technology. 
• Some regular classes exceed the enrollment limit for special education students.
• Teachers do not have copies of students’ individualized education plans, which are used to appropriately modify coursework.

In a letter to Catalyst, Perspectives President and Co-founder Diana Shulla-Cose and Chief Operations Officer John Hayner cast light on the larger issue of “unfunded mandates” to provide services on special education.

“We pride ourselves on excellent education and service to students, whatever their particular needs,” they wrote in the letter. “Like all schools, public and private, Perspectives is always challenged to find the funds to ensure a sufficient level of staffing and services—needs that change routinely.”

Longtime reformer Don Moore, executive director for Designs for Change, says problems with special education services are rampant throughout the entire system, charters and traditional schools alike. Moore recalls news reports in recent years that highlighted staffing cuts among special education aides and alleged that the district capped special education referrals at schools.

Shulla-Cose and Hayner declined to comment on the timing and rationale behind Allen’s dismissal. “It is disturbing to have a former employee use the educational challenges that exceptional needs students face, and conflate it with her dismissal.”

Parents chime in

Two parents have joined Allen in the letter writing campaign and are seeking better services for their sons.

Velda Myles and Tanya Brown say their special needs children were well served at Perspectives Calumet Tech as freshmen and sophomores, but this year was noticeably different, when a new special education instructional leader took charge.

“[My son] doesn’t have any help in the classroom at all,” says Brown, despite his attention deficits and problems with organization, reading and writing. He is failing nearly all of his classes, she notes, except two:  a reading class where he was getting extra help from Allen and a history class that is based largely on classroom participation.

His education plan, which technically expired in November, calls for him to get extra help in math—including the use of a calculator and clear verbal instructions—and other subjects.

Brown says she was told by phone that her son’s individualized education plan called for no extra classroom attention. “I don’t understand,” Brown says. “Last year, he got everything that he needed.”

Myles says she faces similar circumstances with her son, who has a learning disability. She says last year, one of his teachers routinely called home to discuss his progress and special needs.

“I don’t get those calls this year,” says Myles, who notes her extended family has five children enrolled in Perspectives charters. “I love the school’s philosophy. I agree with everything [Perspectives] stands for, except for this.”

Perspectives’ Hayner points to the charter network’s high percentage of special needs students (between 18 and 19 percent) compared to other charters, and says this year’s population increased proportionally when Calumet Tech added its third freshmen class.

Yet charters tend to enroll fewer special needs students who face severe learning and behavioral problems, says Moore of Designs for Change.