I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, March 2, 2013

NJ Charters: Leaving Special Ed Kids Behind

The Christie Administration has just issued its decisions on New Jersey charter school renewals. Some have been approved and allowed to expand, some have been approved with no expansion allowed, some are on probation, and three must shut their doors at the end of the school year.

As I wrote earlier, there doesn't seem to be much correlation between each school's performance on state tests, relative to its student population, and whether or not it was approved: a relative high-flyer like Oceanside must close, while a relative poor-performer like Maria L. Varisco (at least on 8th Grade math tests) remains open. Where's the logic? What is the NJDOE's criteria for granting charters?

I started looking at student demographics for the schools in this round, hoping to find a pattern - but I honestly could not. Free Lunch eligibility, race/ethnicity, gender... none seemed to yield a correlation as to whether the NJDOE would grant a charter or not. English language proficiency wasn't even an issue: none of the schools in this round had more than 2% of LEP students in their populations.

So I was stumped... until I looked at special education rates:

The schools in green are approvals (Discovery would be green, if it had any special education students), in yellow are probations, in orange are probations with decision pending, and in red are denials. Notice a pattern?

In this last round of approvals, charter schools that take more special education kids were more likely to have their charters denied.

What about the outlier, Ridge and Valley Charter School? This K-8 school is deep in Republican country; there's no way Christie would close a charter here and anger parents unnecessarily.

It's worth pointing out that none of the charters in this round serve children with the most severe disabilities: autism, emotional disturbances, mental retardation, and so on. The vast majority spend more than 80% of their time with their classmates, and have either speech/language impairments (SLI) or specific learning disabilities (SLD) such as dyslexia. These are not the most difficult and most costly students to educate; those are left to the public schools.

Still, the classification rates are telling; it appears that charters in New Jersey that attempt to serve children with special needs pay a penalty.

Everyone OK with that?

I am.

Note: I left one of the schools approved by the NJDOE in this round out of my analysis: chARTer Tech High School. Aside from being the only Grade 9-12 school in the round, chARTer Tech stands out for its emphasis on arts education: you have to "major" in an arts speciality, and you have to submit a "skills assessment" based on your intended major.

chARTer Tech is really more like a magnet school than a charter; it wouldn't be right to include it here.

ADDING: The NJDOE told Freedom Academy earlier this year that it was likely to be denied a charter and forced to close. So that orange bar above really should have more red in it.

I wonder if NJDOE is making a deal for the school to be taken over by an outside management company. It wouldn't be the first time...


Students Last said...

Charter schools have especially difficult admissions procedures to weed out "undesirables." We made fun of it in a recent article: http://studentslast.blogspot.com/2013/03/cherry-picking-isnt-just-for-fruit.html #satire

Ken Houghton said...

Are you checking only whether they "just" have an IEP or whether they need severe intervention? At a guess, the 25% at Ridge and Valley probably splits 50-50 (at most) between moderately-impaired and "clearly on the spectrum."

The message to the charters is clear: don't let there be more than 5% of your student body with IEPs or you risk the Wrath of Cerf.

Good thing there are no more than 5% people with special needs in all of New Jersey, eh?

Duke said...

Good question, Ken. NJ lists classification rates for districts (charters are their own districts) for ages 3-21. In a separate database, they then break it down for ages 6-21 by classification - SLD, SLI, autism, etc. - and then by placement: >80% of class time with gen ed students, 40-80%, <40%, outplacement, etc.

Ridge and Valley actually places 14 kids listed SLD - more than 10% of their total student population! - in the 40-80% category.

I give them a lot of credit for that, although I have no way of knowing whether the school is doing a good job meeting these students' needs. But at least they aren't shying away from trying to serve these children, as the "winners" clearly would.

Kevin said...

Segregation of public education in NJ is a growing market supported by the wealthy 1% . I don't understand why the feds are allowing this to happen.

Renegade_Geek said...

Just happened to find your page, while doing a search for something else. My kids attend Ridge and Valley. I also sub there occasionally, as I'm also a certified teacher in NJ. Just to clear up any misconceptions, students are selected by lottery at the school, with kids in the local district given preference. Several families have actually moved to our little rural town (from other areas of NJ, PA and NY), just to be able to be part of the school.

Both my kids have ADHD, and the oldest has dyslexia and Aspergers. In general, the school does a really great job of caring for ALL of its students, and offers a lot of support for kids with SLDs. We have an excellent, well-trained special ed. staff. One of the keys to the school, I think, is that all the students get a lot of personal attention (class size is very small), lots of time outdoors, lots of time spent in engaging, integrated studies, and lots of time to pursue their own learning interests. We also have great policies on positive behavior intervention, healthy nutrition, (no school cafeteria here), community service, etc.

Overall Ridge and Valley is a school that doesn't teach to the test, so our school is always going to suffer when compared to those that do lots of test prep and memorization. That's fine by me. I'd rather my kids spend time with real, deep learning and exciting projects instead. That said, we did meet our test targets for 2014, and we're hoping the probation will be lifted. Our Language Arts and Science scores were above the local elementary school's this year, which was exciting,. However we have work yet to do on our math scores. (We teach from the standpoint of early algebraic thinking and number sense, rather than standard computation and arithmetic based curriculum, so testing doesn't always translate, but we're adapting our program to address that. As a math teacher myself, I much prefer my kids learning this way, as it makes them much stronger and more flexible mathematical thinkers.)

Oh, and don't assume that because we're in a Republican county we get lots of love from the Governor. We're a "hippie" school based on sustainable education and environmental stewardship, among other mission goals, so we're a bit different. We get tons of flack from the community for just existing, unfortunately.