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.
At South City Preparatory Academy, the arrangement with Miriam has given DeVonte Underwood, a seventh-grader, the intensive tutoring he needed to finally start reading.
DeVonte enrolled at the charter middle school last year as a nonreader. He had attended Monroe Elementary in St. Louis Public Schools. After eight months with a Miriam specialist, DeVonte now reads at a third-grade level, his special education instructor said.
DeVonte stood before his classmates this fall and read a paragraph aloud for the first time.
“I’m getting better and better,” DeVonte said last month, recalling the moment. “I was like, ‘Wow, I can read that good now!’”
In St. Louis Public Schools, the percentage of children with special needs is on the decline, down to 14.4 percent in the 2013-14 school year from 16 percent three years ago, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Most charter schools enroll smaller percentages. Of the 17 charter schools or charter school networks, nine have special needs numbers that make up less than 10 percent of enrollment.
Five charter schools — Construction Careers Center, Premier Charter School, City Garden Montessori, Carondelet Leadership Academy, and Jamaa — had higher rates of special needs children than the district last year.
Nationally, charter schools continue to lag in this area. But the rates are rising, according to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a Washington-based organization committed to addressing this issue.
Higher rates don’t always mean quality.
“Access is just the first piece,” said Lauren Morando, executive director of the organization. “The next is that they have the opportunity to be successful.”
Over the years, some parents of children with disabilities have complained that some St. Louis charter schools have denied their children the diagnostic testing needed to determine their special needs. Other parents have accused some charter schools of pushing their children out by giving parents the choice of suspension for their child if they stay.
Each year, a handful of parents making these claims turn to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri for help.
Maggie LaMore is the staff attorney who often works with them. “We’ve had multiple reports of parents being told you can withdraw your children and take them to St. Louis Public Schools, or long-term suspensions,” LaMore said.
“I think charter schools want to do well,” she added. “I have a concern, and our office has a concern, that they want to push children with behavioral issues out rather than address the problem.”
LaMore said she has confidence in the work that Miriam is doing in the growing network of charters, including its counseling services, and believes it’s a step up from what some of the schools had been providing.
“When I get a Miriam school’s evaluation at least I know its something I can trust, and it’s reliable,” LaMore said.
At South City Prep last month, an occupational therapist worked with three children on calming exercises in the gym. A special education teacher worked with students on reading in a basement classroom.
“Without an organization like Miriam, we would not be able to provide those services for kids,” said Mike Malone, the head of school. “When you have 185 kids, you can do our budget pretty quickly.”