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special education

Thriving special education programs have these 7 elements

Study reveals how inclusion for students with disability yields the most successful results in charter school special education programs.

Focusing on inclusion, using data, and forming partnerships are among the practices that can help make special education programs successful in schools, according to a report.

Meeting the Needs of Every Student Through Inclusion,” from the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), details the special education program philosophy behind 10 California charter public schools, how they implement best practices on their campuses, and what policy arrangements have allowed them to succeed.

The qualitative study offers new insights into the best ways to serve students with disabilities in all schools, in particular the benefits of inclusive education. These practices have have also yielded incredible results for the schools, with boosts in enrollment and performance in both ELA and math.

California’s students with disabilities often have faced significant disparities in the quality of their education–a problem exacerbated by a focus on compliance over results, lack of autonomy, and a failure to truly individualize student supports.

“Charters school leaders recognize students learn better together, and they belong together in the classroom, regardless of their ability,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO, CCSA. “Creating communities where everyone feels valued and accepted begins in our schools. Charter schools do not have a history of segregating students by ability, and have long modeled effective classroom practices. I am thrilled by the way charter schools are embracing student differences and offering inclusive education that is shown to benefit all students.”

(Next page: The 7 elements that contribute to successful special education programs)

Though the final sample of 10 schools was diverse in size, instructional model, and student demographics, the following concepts and practices existed across each school:

1. Embracing student differences as part of school culture
2. A special education program philosophy built around inclusion
3. Multi-tiered systems of support to layer interventions
4. Data-driven instruction and interventions
5. Family and community partnerships were leveraged
6. Schools had autonomy over their special education funding and staffing
7. Professional development was tailored and staff-driven

Students learn better together
One of the key findings from the study centered on the dedication of teachers and administrators to provide inclusive practices at their schools.

“The practice of inclusion sets charter school programs apart in their ability to serve students with special needs,” said Kate Dove, Special Education advisor, CCSA. “We are pleased to note that, according to a recent analysis by the California Department of Education, 88 percent of charter students with disabilities are being served in general education classes for more than 80 percent of their school day, compared to 53 percent of students with disabilities statewide.”

Getting results

The practices outlined in the report have led to incredible student success at the 10 schools studied. Two are California Gold Ribbon schools, one is a National Blue Ribbon school, and another is internationally known for its cutting-edge approach to inclusion. The median special education enrollment at the schools was 10 percent, with some schools educating more than 14 percent students with disabilities.

Recent data shows that charter schools in the sample studied are outperforming state averages on standardized tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. In 2014-15, a statewide transition to a new assessment system and standards caused a drop in proficiency across all California schools. That said, students with disabilities at the charter schools in the sample still outperformed the state average in both ELA and Math.

These charter schools were able to create specialized programs and implement the successful concepts and practices outlined above because of the autonomy they have over their special education programs. The majority of the schools in this study operate as either Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) or LEA-like for purposes of special education* which allows them to make programmatic decisions at their school-site.

Under California law, charter schools can operate as their own independent LEA in a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). This allows charter schools to attain full autonomy and flexibility over their special education funding and programs, allowing schools to hire the right staff and create high-quality, individualized programs for students. Additionally, schools can operate in LEA-like environments where the charter school creates a contract with their authorizing school district to secure funding and programmatic freedom for special education services.

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Laura Ascione

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