Last evening, during a quiet monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board when attendance at the session barely reached a quorum of board members and IDEAL Academy PCS received its third citation of fiscal mismanagement since March 2016, the body voted to give St. Coletta PCS an admission preference for special education students.
Its an interesting development. St. Coletta, as described in the meeting’s supporting documentation, is the only charter in the nation’s capital to focus on serving only students with disabilities. The reputation of the facility is stellar. The school is in its eleventh year of operation educating 251 scholars ages three to twenty two at its permanent facility located in Ward 7. The supporting documentation states that “St. Coletta PCS is a specially designed program for students with severe disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities and autism, who require over 25 hours of special education services per their individualized education plans (“IEP”) and the most restrictive learning environment.”
The issue the school has been facing is that, like all charters, admission is on a first-come basis and when more students want to attend than there are spots, a lottery is held. St. Coletta has found that parents have sought admission for their kids who do not have disabilities. To best explain this situation I will quote directly from the PCSB staff:
“Once enrolled, if St. Coletta PCS determines a student isn’t eligible for its program
because he or she requires a less restrictive learning environment, the school must
complete an extensive process to review and modify the student’s IEP before
finding the student a more suitable educational placement. By implementing the
proposed special education enrollment preference, St. Coletta PCS will ensure that
the students who will best benefit from its program, those with the highest levels of
disability, have the highest opportunity for enrollment. Without this preference, a
student who does not require any special education services or requires a less
restrictive environment would need to be accepted into the program and could
result in 1) students with higher levels of special education needs not getting into
the program and 2) students losing valuable instructional time as they are assessed
and placed out of St. Coletta PCS to a school that offers a general education program.”
I strongly agree that St. Coletta has a unique and extremely valuable mission that should be supported. But the preference was granted through the school filing a charter amendment. My question is whether this is the appropriate process for altering an admission policy.
For example, could KIPP DC PCS now use the same method to give a preference to low income children? What about another school that wants to teach only kids living in the neighborhood? Might a charter amendment be utilized to discriminate against those that a charter would rather not let in the door?
My inclination is that something as serious as an admissions preference should be addressed as a revision to the School Reform Act. In this way the language could be written as not to favor a particular charter but all schools in the sector. For example, in this instance, the legislation would state that “any charter whose mission is to serve special education students may elect to give an enrollment preference to children who would be best served with these services.”
Public school reform has been successful in D.C. due to the competition for students that choice has promulgated. Therefore, anything that diminishes the educational marketplace must rise to an extremely high level before it is implemented. This is why I contend that an action by the D.C. Council, while harder to obtain, is the more suitable path.
The St. Coletta admissions preference will take effect for the 2018-to-2019 school year lottery. The charter has said that it will employ a sibling preference if the child meets its enrollment criteria.