When Lydia Bellahcene’s son "E.E.," who struggles with a reading disability, was picked from a lottery to attend Williamsburg Charter High School, she was elated. “I thought my son could be successful. He would be given the support he needed. I had no red light, yellow light to be cautious because they had an IEP team [a group of administrators who ensure special education students receive services].” Although her son worked with a special education reading instructor every day for 45 minutes beginning in 3rd grade at a regular Department of Education school, when he began 9th grade at Williamsburg Charter in 2007, the specialist was promised, but never appeared. As a result, he failed 9th-grade English, became depressed, and was forced to continue to wear the 9th-grade green uniform the following year, while his friends wore the gold 10th-grade Williamsburg Charter shirt, said Bellahcene.

Charter schools, which operate outside the city Department of Education and select students through a lottery, have become increasingly controversial as their numbers have grown. This fall an additional 24 charter schools are expected to open, bringing the total in New York City to more than 100 schools. As charter schools proliferate, and in many instances, post higher test scores than neighboring regular schools,some parents and advocates claim the schools are “creaming,” enrolling only the best students and ignoring disadvantaged populations.

“Those charter schools are not serving the main population,” said Aixa Rodriguez, a Spanish teacher who worked at International Leadership Charter School in the Bronx. She said students requiring extra services were pushed out. “They’re serving a boutique population…You’re not going to have a whole line of parents on welfare whose kids are PINS,” referring to the warrants parents place on run-away youth.

Charter school advocates disagree. “When somebody says a charter school is creaming, what they’re not telling you is there’s no way on God’s Earth you know who you’re getting,” said Jeffery Litt, superintendent of the Carl C. Icahn charter schools.

Charter schools claim they outperform neighborhood schools while enrolling the same student demographic. Opponents argue that charter schools only attract children whose parents are involved and invested in their education, since the parents had to seek out a charter school and fill out an application by the April 1 deadline. Additionally, because charter schools operate independently of the city DOE, opponents say there is no oversight to protect the most vulnerable students – those who don’t speak English or require special education services.

An analysis of student data involving some of the most challenging students to educate, students who are homeless, special education students, and English Language Learners (ELL), shows that charter schools don’t serve or enroll the same students as local public schools.

Homeless students

In New York City, 51,316 public school students are homeless, and only 111 of them attend a charter school, according to Jennifer Pringle, director of NYS-TEACHS, a state-funded group that provides assistance to schools, social service providers, and families about the educational rights of homeless students.

Charter school enrollment table

“With many charter schools, you have an application process. It’s not just you can show up at the school on September 1st and register your child,” Pringle said, “and many families in crisis aren’t in a position to see that process through.” Although most city charter schools are located in low-income neighborhoods, 34 charter schools enroll no homeless students. In East New York, Brooklyn, a politically-forgotten neighborhood with decrepit buildings and the infamous Pink housing projects, nine homeless shelters are located near Achievement First East New York Charter School. The school does not enroll any homeless students.

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According to Emily Ente, senior external relations associate for Achievement First schools, although homeless shelters are located near their schools, some students living in those shelters attend schools as far away as the Bronx. (The federal government provides free transportation to homeless students if they wish to attend their original school.) “If for whatever reason they’re not showing up in our numbers, that’s certainly a population we’re committed to serving,” she added.

Homeless shelters always fall within the boundaries of a school zone. Charter schools don’t have school zones and instead enroll students by lottery, giving preference to applicants who live in the DOE’s geographic district. Carl C. Icahn Charter School in the Bronx is located on the same piece of property as the Carl C. Icahn family homeless shelter, yet it only educates one homeless student.

“The application period is February and March and the lottery is held in April,” said Litt. “A mother who comes [to the shelter] in June is too late, so their kids go to the neighborhood school.” Homeless families may have priorities other than seeking alternatives to their neighborhood schools, he said. “They have daily survival needs. I don’t know if they have the time to research who we are, what we are, how to get in.”

Regardless of the burdens homeless students encounter, they should have the same right to choose a good school as students with a permanent address, says Pringle. “While I’m sympathetic to the challenges charter school face in attracting these vulnerable students, these students shouldn’t be effectively excluded from charter schools, which is often the case under their admission’s timeline,” she said.

English Language Learners

Students who don’t speak English (referred to as English Language Learners or ELLs by the Department of Education) are less likely to attend a charter school. Although between 14-17 percent of New York City public school are still learning English, according to 2008-09 Title III allocations (federal money schools receive for students learning English), they represent just three percent of the charter school population. Twenty-five charter schools don’t educate any students who require assistance learning English, while another 20 charter schools have fewer than five ELL students. Advocates say the low numbers result from a dearth of programs in charter schools dedicated to serving beginning English speakers, parents’ inability to navigate the application process because they don’t speak English, and a misunderstanding of laws that protect students who followed their parents into the country illegally.“I had an issue with one school under the Harlem Children’s Zone that would not admit a student because she did not have a social security number,” said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, an attorney for the immigrant’s rights project at Advocates for Children, Insideschools’ parent organization. “We were able to resolve the issue for that case, but it’s unclear if other charter schools are similarly unaware of the laws prohibiting this sort of thing.”

While the DOE offers three distinct programs for ELLs -- English as a Second Language (ESL), Bilingual instruction, and Dual Language instruction -- charter schools don’t have specific programs.

At Democracy Preparatory Charter School in Manhattan, about one-half of the ELLs are placed in Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) classes, a class that’s taught by two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education. They receive the necessary support, because there is an extra teacher in the room, according to Democracy Prep administrators.“That benefits you, whether you have an IEP, you’re an ELL, or just having trouble managing division,” said Katie Duffy, director of external affairs for Democracy Prep. “Most of them have a working knowledge of English, so you can teach in English. You don’t have to have a separate program or separate teachers for ELLs.”Common sense says a teacher certified in a particular field, such as special education, should teach within that field. Charter schools, however, were created to challenge commonly-held assumptions about the best pedagogy. Charter schools may decide that what works best for ELLs is to have two teachers in one room, regardless of certification.

At New Heights Academy Charter School in Washington Heights, 42 percent of students are ELLs – the largest percentage of any charter school. However, there is only one certified ESL teacher for the 78 students requiring additional support, said Principal Stacy Winitt.

“Some of our ELLs are already receiving CTT services, so we don’t double-up on services,” she said, adding that many of her students are fluent in English but have trouble passing the English proficiency exam because they lack basic literacy skills in their native language. “For the vast majority, they struggle with reading period,” said Winitt. “If you’re struggling in your native language, it’s hard to transfer those basic skills into English literacy.”

A special education teacher helping an ELL is akin to an airline pilot steering a ship, say immigrant advocates.

“Special education and language acquisition services are completely two different things” said Benjamin-Gomez. “Under state and federal law, you have to have, at minimum, an ESL or bilingual program. You cannot put them in a special education program to satisfy their ESL needs.” According to Benjamin-Gomez, it is only permissible to place ELL students in a special education class without help from a certified ESL teacher if  they are “non-verbal.”

Charter schools have found a way to dance around that law, in part, because that is the essence of a charter school: the freedom to create innovative, atypical programs that don’t match DOE guidelines. Before a charter school is approved, they must submit a plan for educating students learning to speak English. According to Democracy Prep Principal Seth Andrew, his plan for servicing some ELLs in CTT classes does not require certified ESL teachers to support them.

Special Education

All special education children in the United States have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a formal document that explains a child’s disability and the services schools are obligated to provide. Special education services range from a highly restrictive class with only special education students, called self-contained, to a more inclusive setting, where students sit in general education classes, but receive extra help, such as SETSS (Special Education Teacher Support Services). Although many DOE schools offer self-contained classes, charter schools don’t. (New York Center for Autism Charter School is the exception. It only enrolls students with autism.) Because an IEP is a legal document, and charter schools don’t offer self-contained classes, schools can say: ‘Sorry, but we don’t offer that program.’

The number of students with IEPs in charter schools is a mystery. Although all DOE schools report the number of special education students on their report cards, charter schools don’t.

“We have the data, but it’s not something that we make public on our website,” said a representative of the New York State Department of Education. Despite dozens of phone calls to state and city DOE officials over a four-week period, the numbers were not released. Data from 2006-07, prepared by John Berman of the NYC Comptroller's Office, shows that 15 charter schools did not enroll any special education students.

A few charter schools interviewed for this story released their current special education numbers. The Ichan C. Charter Schools each serve between three and five special education students.

“You have to understand, charter schools don’t make a lot of referrals [to special education],” said Litt. “We refer children only when it’s absolutely necessary.” Icahn class sizes are capped at 18 students, every teacher works with a group of five students daily for 40 minutes, and students attend tutoring and extra classes after school and on Saturdays, said Litt. “Instead of sending a kid to SETSS, I can provide targeted assistance here,” he said. For non-academic special education services, such as counseling or physical therapy, families are referred to Bronx Lebanon Hospital.

In contrast, parents at some charter schools say their children are not getting the targeted assistance they need.

When neighbors told Jamie Evans that the schools were terrible in her Morrisania neighborhood in the Bronx, she immediately searched for alternatives. She found five charters schools, submitted applications, and crossed her fingers. Her luck landed on Harriet Tubman Charter School, the only school that picked her daughter Christina during the lotteries.

But, when five-year-old Christina started kindergarten, trouble began.

“I started getting calls. They told me I had to come to school and sit with her in the classroom, because she was acting out,” said Evans, who at the time thought her daughter was just misbehaving, but now recognizes that her daughter has a disability. After Evans sat with Christina for three days during the school year, she calmed down. But, when 1st grade began and Christina shouted out in class, began fighting with other children, erupted in screaming tantrums, and wouldn’t sit on the rug, the phone calls started again.

“The principal, she gave up on Christina. She said, ‘I wasn’t raised this way, and what’s going on in the household? We don’t tolerate this.’” recalls Evans. “She was just not trying to help me in no kind of way. She wouldn’t give me the time of day. I would call her. I would schedule meetings with her, but she wouldn’t show up.” After a few months in 1st grade, Evans removed Christina and enrolled her at their zoned school, PS 55, where she was evaluated and given an IEP that mandates that she be given twice weekly therapy sessions.

Not all charter schools are alike. While some charter schools tolerate deviant behaviors, others do a pitiful job with children who don’t fit the straight-arrow charter school mold.

“Charters are so focused on the culture of the school, the routine,” said Principal Jessica Nauiokas of Mott Haven Academy Charter School, which reserves two-thirds of its seats for children in foster care. “We have to be okay with Jayda screaming and kicking on the floor,” she said recognizing that most of her students suffer from post-traumatic stress from living in abusive or neglectful homes. “I’m confident if they showed these behaviors in another charter school, they would be referred to [self-contained] special education.”

It’s difficult to determine which schools work with special needs families and which don’t, but educators say that something smells fishy when a school has zero special needs students.

“If a student’s IEP says self-contained, they technically can’t come to our school,” said Winitt, of New Heights charter school. However, some charter schools create new IEPs that might suggest an alternative to a self-contained class, such as counseling twice per week, physical therapy three times per week, daily individual reading support, and an aide to sit with the child in class.

“I don’t think self-contained classes have been proven to work. I also don’t want to see a charter school send these kids away,” said Dr. Arthur Sadoff at the New York City Charter School Center, an independent organization that supports charter schools. “I’m more concerned about charter schools that don’t have any special education students. They counsel the kids out when they arrive…without doing what I’m saying.” Dr. Sadoff suggests schools work with parents, special education coordinators, and teachers to create comprehensive IEPs that allow a child with special needs to learn among general education peers.

Special education advocates say that Sadoff’s approach may work for some students but not for all of the estimated 180,000 New York City students with an IEP.

“There are some kids who have needs that require more support, a small class ratio, and a school with more training and expertise and they may not be able to be in a mainstream environment,” said Kim Madden, director of legal services at Advocates for Children. Fed-up with underperforming neighborhood schools, many parents agree to IEP changes, just to secure a seat, she said.

“A parent is really scared, because it’s not a given virtue to be there, as it is at a zoned school…parents are just scared about where their child is struggling” said Madden. “They know this school can say ‘sorry, you can’t stay here,’ and that’s just a reality parents face all the time.” For charter schools to truly be inclusive, advocates say, more charter schools should be opened to meet the needs of special education students.

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Charter school authorizers “just need to require that every school has an array of special education programs,” said Madden.

Tough choices for families

With the help of an advocate, Lydia Bellahcene’s son E.E. received 60 hours of free compensatory tutoring for the time he had lost with his reading specialist. He finally passed 9th-grade English, but is now struggling with 10th-grade English. He was prohibited from playing on the school baseball team, a devastating prospect for E.E., who loves the sport. The family is searching for a new high school next year.

Jamie Evans blames herself for Christina’s downward spiral and wishes she had pushed harder for the charter school to serve her daughter properly, rather than allowing them to push her daughter out. After enrolling at PS 55, Christina was suspended three times for kicking her teacher and throwing chairs. Christina is now in the 2nd grade, and the school informed Evans they will not promote her to 3rd grade next year. Evans believes that Christina would have been served better at the original charter school, only with the right special education support.

“Me pulling Christina out of Harriet Tubman was my fault as a parent,” said Evans. “By pulling her out, I cheated her out of a good education. I now know better. I should have reported [the principal]. I could have found out if public schools have paras [para professionals assigned to work one on one with some students], and I would have asked, ‘does charter schools have this type of thing’.”

Although Evans thinks that both schools have done a poor job serving her daughter’s special education needs, she misses the charter school’s small size, tough discipline, and weekly spelling tests. She’s currently on the waiting list at Icahn Charter School and Girls Preparatory Charter School. “I’ll just keep trying to put her in charter schools,” she said. “I know it’s hard, but I’ll just keep trying.”

_ UPDATE: After this story was published, the DOE released the percentage of special education students at individual charter schools. Opportunity Charter School in Harlem educates the highest percentage of special needs students at 55 percent. The school also holds two lotteries, one for students with an IEP and one for general education students. Bronx Charter School for Better Learning does not educate any special education students. _

_ CORRECTION: Since initial  publication, the embedded chart was revised to reflect the 2008-09 enrollment numbers. It was previously reported that New Heights Academy Charter School served the largest percentage of English Language Learners. The school that has the largest percentage of ELLs is Family Life Academy Charter School in the Bronx._