Do Charter Schools Wreck It for Special Needs Kids?

Do Charter Schools Wreck It for Special Needs Kids?

Each of the past two years has given me a chance to play orator for Alex’s school. Last spring, the NYC Department of Education planned to move about 300 general-ed. kids into Alex’s school where 120 had been before. Lots of factors here—space; the building’s being on a major city bus route; the building’s age and its crappy elevators; no real emergency plan even for the hefty teenage students in wheelchairs—figured in our argument. Leaning into the microphone at a public hearing, I felt like Churchill: “If I were being asked to vote for or against this proposal, the one word running through my mind would be ‘risk.’” I like to think I had something to do with the DOE eventually reaching the wise decision to find other, better, space for those 300 kids.

This year’s campaign seems to be with charter schools, private, business-like entities being granted, in New York anyway, more and more space in public school buildings. I believe the mayor is using charter schools as a cheap (see “tax-free”) way to build voter support, but I’m no Churchill when it comes to wheeling-dealing.

Alex’s public “school” comprises several “sites” in NYC school buildings (Alex’s site has about 50 students; most other sites have more). Last fall, a charter school moved into the building that houses our main site; at first, our principal was pleased, especially that the charter school could make minor repairs and acquire educational gear faster than the U.S. Army-like bureaucracy of the NYC DOE. Sometime after Halloween, however, the charter students began leaving the cafeteria a real mess after breakfast, and our kids walked or were wheeled in right afterward to cups on the floor and spills on the tables.

Our principal is a roll-up-the-sleeves type: She was wiping down a table one morning when who should walk in but a DOE deputy chancellor. The principal dried the old milk from her hand, introduced herself, and explained what she was doing and why.

“Why don’t your kids,” the deputy chancellor reportedly replied, “just eat in their classrooms?”

Right now, a charter school that recently received an “F” on its effectiveness ranking wants to take/squeeze out another special-needs public school. I don’t yet know all the parties or their viewpoints, but reportedly this started with the charter school asking the special-needs school to not use the building library at certain hours, followed by an elbow-bumping over cafeteria times. The request I noticed, however, was the charter school’s demanding that the special-needs kids not use the playground at the same time as the charter school students. Well.

“We must be vigilant!” a special-ed. advocate said at a recent meeting on the matter. “Charter schools are businesses using public facilities and public funds, yet they’re still acting like businesses.” The unspoken fear: that city agencies we depend on to protect us are somehow now in someone else’s pocket.

I leaned into the microphone and asked, “Did they make all these demands for space at once, or one at a time?” (An astute yet somehow pointless question, but all the good ones had already been asked.) “It’s the playground request I find disturbing, reflecting more of the kind of attitude we need to be vigilant for all the time.” This charter school seems to think it a point to insulate their kids from special-needs kids. Business sense, maybe, but business sense isn’t always common sense, and in this case it also isn’t common good.

Sure, if it wasn’t a charter school it’d be some general-ed. school or maybe some business community that didn’t want our kids going in their stores. Like when a teacher from Alex’s site, looking to set up employment opportunities with a neighborhood thrift shop—a shop to benefit those living with AIDS, just a couple of decades ago big pariahs in our society—and was told at the counter, “We don’t hire the handicapped.”

“We don’t actually use that term anymore,” the unit teacher said.

“Well whatever you call them, we don’t hire them.”

Illegal? You betcha. Call a cop. In an instant of such an unfinest hour of ignorance, though, how long would it be before the cop turned to the teacher, spread his hands, and asked, “Ma’am, what exactly do you want me to do about this?” Never in the long field of human conflict has our vigilance needed to be more tireless.

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Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives with his wife Jill and their two sons in New York. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Fam more


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