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Forging Parent Partnerships to Better Serve Students with Special Needs

July 9, 2019
Report details how charter schools and parents can work together to improve outcomes for students with disabilities

Parents are the experts on their children.

They know the hidden strengths they possess, talents that schools might not easily unearth. They understand the unique challenges their children experience in a typical school environment.

This expertise can be especially acute for parents of students with disabilities, particularly if their children have attended schools that haven’t met their needs, or have failed to find innovative ways to tap into their potential.

For kids who learn differently, parents often must be the ones who navigate the complicated – and frequently frustrating – path to getting their kids the supports they need to thrive.

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That’s why all schools, and particularly schools of choice that families opt into, would benefit from forming deep and meaningful partnerships with parents.

A new report from Public Impact, an education research and consultancy firm, demonstrates how charter schools and parent advocates can unite to achieve common goals: closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities, and ensuring all students truly have access to educational pathways that support their full potential.

There is a critical and increasingly urgent need to do better for students with special needs.
Johannah Chase

“Education providers of all kinds have long grappled with how best to support students with disabilities and the range of needs that they have,” says Daniela Doyle, vice president for policy and management research at Public Impact, and the report’s co-author.

“Parents intimately know what their children are experiencing, what’s worked for them and gaps within the system. They bring really strong advocacy skills because they have been doing this work for a long time.”

There is a critical and increasingly urgent need to do better for students with special needs.

With proper accommodations, up to “90% of students with disabilities can meet the same achievement standards as other students,” the report says.

Public charter schools are “poised to address the needs of kids with disabilities” because of their unique governance structure and greater flexibility to implement innovative programming for students, it adds.

But despite some advantages, charter schools can fall short due to structural, systemic and political constraints.

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Like all schools, charters can struggle to find special education teachers with the expertise and experience to be effective.

Because charter schools are often independent, or part of small networks, they can also lack the economies of scale that districts enjoy to hire or train teachers or therapists to address the more complex needs of students with disabilities.

There are funding shortages, too, that constrain schools from delivering services required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And some charters are restricted by local education agencies in how they serve students with disabilities.

These are areas in which parent advocates can be game changers for charter school operators, Daniela and her co-author, Julia Conrad Fisher, write.

Since the inception of “special education” four decades ago, parents have led the charge on national policy and legal victories for students with disabilities, including passage of IDEA in 1975 and influencing decisions around state implementation of the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

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Locally, parents “stand to have an even greater impact” by partnering with charter champions that have expertise in conducting “collective, broad-based advocacy activities focused on systems-level change” across the education sector.

“Both charter proponents and parents of students with disabilities stand to gain more — and innovate what special education can look like across our education system — by working together than alone,” the report says.

Already, some charter organizations and parent groups are blazing the trail.

In New York, the charter support organization, The Collaborative for Inclusive Education, is working with a local parent group, INCLUDEnyc, to help its member charter schools be more effective in addressing parent concerns.

In Washington, Education Forward DC has forged a strong working relationship with a parent organization, Advocates for Justice and Education, to seek improvements in how charter schools serve students with disabilities.

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The report outlines several practical steps to help charter champions connect with parents.

It suggests charters start by setting “ambitious goals” to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, open dialogues with parents to identify gaps in knowledge, identify existing parent advocacy groups and commit to “deep and authentic partnerships” with them.

All schools should make these partnerships a priority.

By getting to know students and their strengths, and by building partnerships with their parents, who know them best, charter schools and those supporting them can improve academic results and opportunities for all the students they serve, particularly our most vulnerable students.

The Walton Family Foundation provided funding to Public Impact to conduct research for the report.

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