I was planning on posting a quick “What We’re Reading” to start the week off (and to get back into the groove of maintaining this blog after a few quiet weeks), but I kept returning to a pair of articles in yesterday’s Times-Pic that I feel need to be discussed in greater depth. Sarah Carr had two articles on students with special needs and charter schools, one of which detailed the challenges faced by parents trying to enroll their children with special needs into charter schools, the other of which described a couple of charter schools that have successful special education programs. When read side-by-side, these articles provide a good overview of the various issues at play with special education, particularly in a parish with multiple governing structures and school types. But they also make it very clear that students with special needs, like all students, deserve high quality education.
I think that mainstream discourse about education reform, particularly when the focus is on equity and access issues tends to focus exclusively on racial and socio-economic barriers to access while glossing over special education issues. As Carr’s articles make clear, many students with special needs don’t have access to the same quality schools as other students. In some cases, schools’ selective admissions policies restrict access. In others, autonomous charter schools strongly discourage parents from applying because of a lack of services for students with special needs. Some schools accept these students but don’t provide them an adequate education, leaving them in full classrooms without the resources needed to truly flourish. In the end, you have students who are just as deserving of receiving a great education, of becoming literate and high-functioning but who, because of their unique needs, end up neglected and underserved.
As a resident of a city, there are several reasons to believe that resources need to be allocated equitably to ensure that these students have access to high quality education. For example, in addition to the more positive, rights-based argument I made above, there’s the crime angle: A 1997 report by Clyde Winters of the Uthman Dan Fodio Institute in Peoria concluded that students with learning disabilities “may be at risk for future incarceration if their disability is not remediated or at least lessoned in severity so that they can become self-sufficient and participate fully in all economic and social opportunities that are available to the nonhandicapped”. (Access to this report requires an engine like EBSOhost, but you can find an excerpt here.)
So if we say that students with special needs have the right to a great education, what does this look like in practice? Given the intense autonomy of most schools in Orleans Parish, there seems to be a need for each school to take aggressive steps to provide accommodations and resources for these students. As Carr’s second article points out, schools like Gregory Elementary, and Wilson and Lafayette charter schools have effective, praise-worthy special education programs. The question then becomes: Should the requirement to provide accommodations for these students be mandated at the state or district level, with periodic accountability reviews and the promise of support? Or is there another way to ensure that all schools are able to serve students with special needs? There’s also ample room for organizations like the SUNS (Serving the Unique Needs of Students) Center to provide support for schools implementing programs, and for community/advocacy organizations like the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center to hold schools accountable.
There’s not enough space left in this post for me to continue diving into possible solutions to this inequity, but these are issues that we need to think about and questions that we need to answer if New Orleans is going to move forward with a system of schools that provides an excellent, high-quality education to all students.