At the Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, a group of nearly 20 teachers, resource staff, former teachers, principals, school psychologists, ad parents showed up for my daughter’s final IEP meeting. That meeting was a celebration of her progress through special education and her return to general education. As a principal, I have attended many such meetings. I know that teaching and leading at a charter school is mostly a labor of love. I suspect that a few teachers in charter schools are “paycheck pros” who take an acceptable wage and deliver uninspiring service. But I’m certain that most of the teachers, tutors, assistants and administrators who staff over 4,000 charter schools around the country do so because they find value and significance in nurturing children. Witness the growing number of charter schools aimed specifically at students on the autism spectrum. These students can be tough to teach and emotionally draining—but we love them. The parents who start such schools, the principals who lead them and the teachers who staff them are noble idealists. Their kind have been represented on every school staff since we started ringing bells and gathering at the front door.
The difference with charter schools is that there is a higher concentration of student-focused, customer-oriented, principle-driven adults than in a normal school. You will not find any “rubber rooms” or “reassignment centers” in charter schools. In part, this is because you rarely find a thriving union at a charter school. Charter schools may struggle to attract and retain the most experienced professionals, but thanks to excellent professional resources and the flexibility of RtI, they have many ways to help special needs students be successful. Traditional schools don’t always know what to do with twice-exceptional students. They don’t typically have a neat program that maximizes these students’ abilities while scaffolding their deficits. Charter schools don’t have a program either, but they are much more likely to have an intimate relationship with a parent who is making a specific choice to bring a challenged child to a public school. That parent has a lifetime of insights—and access to school staff who are eager to hear them.
In full fairness, there are parents who have had bad experiences with special needs education at charter schools. There are parents who disagree with my perspective or level of service. But those parents have had many hours over many years to press their case with me and others. They have aired their concerns and got most or all of what they felt their child needed. We who have poured our best into the charter school movement are motivated to be resourceful, responsive, optimistic, and diligent. We are exactly like the pioneers who settled the American West. We cannot afford to ignore the gift and potential of a child or her family just because they come intertwined with learning challenges and struggles. We want to succeed together, and every solution we develop prepares us to attract and serve the students we need to mature and thrive. Parents, by partnering with us to serve your child, we are both strengthened—and strengthened schools and parents are good for all students…especially the most special among us.