Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Charter Schools Team Up to Boost Special Education

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Charter Schools Team Up to Boost Special Education

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * Charter school critics have long argued that independent public schools don't take on children with disabilities, leaving district schools with the expensive task of special education.

But gradually, St. Louis charter schools are enrolling more students with disabilities, and some at higher rates than the city school system itself.

A growing number of charters are partnering with Miriam Learning Center, affiliated with the private Miriam School in Webster Groves, to provide special education in a way they had struggled with before.

Services include occupational therapy, language and speech therapy, counseling and intense reading intervention. Nine of 22 charter schools in St. Louis are part of this network. An additional seven are in line to join it in the fall.

The arrangement makes it easier for charter schools such as Jamaa Learning Center to get specialists for several hours a week, rather than hire full-time therapists at the expense of general education.

"We did not need a full-time occupational or a speech and language therapist," said Trina Clark James, executive director of the charter elementary school.

But with more than 20 percent of the students in need of some sort of special education services, the school needed to provide them.

"We fill in the holes," said Beth Rose, director of Miriam Learning Center, which serves children with complex learning disabilities.

Charter schools are tax-funded tuition-free public schools that have no affiliation with school districts, but they are bound by the same federal law that mandates a quality education for every child.

Yet paying for special education services can be difficult for charter schools. Most are significantly smaller than school districts and therefore don't enjoy the same economies of scale.

Nationally, charter schools serve far fewer students with disabilities 8 percent to 10 percent of their students on average than district schools, which serve 13.1 percent. Some state funding formulas encourage charter schools to enroll students with disabilities, while in other states there are clear financial disincentives.

'GETTING BETTER AND BETTER'

In Missouri, the cost of providing special education services varies, from inexpensive speech therapy to services for profound disabilities that may cost more than three times the price of a general education. When a student's services exceed this amount, a district or charter school may apply for reimbursement from a state fund.

But even the less expensive special education services can be a stretch for a start-up charter school.

It's a challenge that Lafayette Preparatory Academy faced in 2013 when it opened as a charter elementary school inside a downtown church. It now has 148 children, about a dozen of whom have special needs.

Inside a classroom on the lower level recently, a Miriam specialist was doing speech therapy, working with a child struggling with the 's' sound. The specialist comes twice week. Other Miriam specialists provide counseling, and occupational and physical therapy to the school.

"Because of our size, we can't support a counselor or a social worker full time," said Susan Marino, the head of Lafayette Preparatory Academy. "It's been very relieving for us."

Charter schools are getting the services from Miriam at a reduced cost. The organization makes up the difference through fundraising and grants. …

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