Inclusion policies improve services to SWD at charters

Inclusion policies improve services to SWD at charters

(Calif.) Policies that focus on building an inclusive school culture are helping charter schools successfully integrate students with disabilities into general education classrooms, according to a new report.

Common policies and practices at all of the 10 schools surveyed in the California Charter Schools Association’s study emphasized prioritizing inclusion, embracing student differences, and having multi-tiered systems of support, as well as establishing autonomy over special education funding and staffing.

“Including students with disabilities in general education classrooms gives them access to more rigorous curriculum, but it also allows for their peers to really get to know them and to understand what disabilities mean and develop sympathy,” Kate Dove, special education advisor for the California Charter Schools Association, said in an interview. “Ultimately, it creates a community at the school site that is more accepting and positive as a result.”

Research shows that regularly including students with disabilities in traditional classrooms has been shown to provide more opportunities for students to interact with their peers, increase academic achievement and skill acquisition, and boost the likelihood students will receive access to more rigorous curriculum.

Authors of the charter association’s report examined 10 schools across California that ranged in size, instructional model and student demographics, and found similar concepts and practices at each that helped strengthen inclusion efforts.  Half of the schools received scores of 8 out of 10 on the association’s statewide ranking and accountability report released this month. The lowest score of those sampled for the inclusion study was 4 out of 10.

They found that, in general, these schools were able to accommodate 88 percent of their students with special needs in general education classes for 80 percent of the day–compared to just 53 percent of students with disabilities statewide who spend the same amount of time in general classes.

A common criticism of charter schools, however, is that students who are hardest to serve–often with severe disabilities–and who would likely be the most difficult to accommodate in a general classroom setting are turned away or pushed out. Of the 10 schools surveyed, only half reported that they worked with a moderate-to-severe education specialist. Additionally, the average total enrollment of students with disabilities was 3 percent less than the national average.

Although only five of the schools employed or contracted with specialists that handled moderate or severe disabilities, Dove said that most had a fairly full continuum of services and supports provided, indicating that they were working to accommodate more students with disabilities than in the past–a trend that will likely continue over time.

“We’re seeing that as schools get more autonomy, flexibility and funding to be able to build their own programs and provide their own services instead of having to depend on their authorizer, that the percentage of students with disabilities and the range of those disabilities are increasing,” Dove said. “It really is just a matter of both time to build that structure once becoming autonomous, and parents becoming aware of charters as options for their children with moderate to severe disabilities.”

Inclusivity has become more common in all schools, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Education. As of 2013, more than 60 percent of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act spent at least 80 percent of their day in regular classrooms, compared to approximately 50 percent of students with disabilities who met that threshold in 2004.

Authors of the charter school study say the increase in inclusion will benefit all students whether or not they have disabilities, and will allow children to interact and learn from peers they otherwise may not associate with.

“Schools really are the training ground for what we want our society to look like as a whole, and I think we can all agree that we want a culture that not only embraces all people, but we want a general population that really understands what it means to be fully inclusive,” Gina Plate, senior special education advisor for the California Charter Schools Association, said in an interview.