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Maine Charter Schools Claim Success With Special Ed Students
09/16/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

How Maine's three newest charter schools do with special needs students will be a key part of the overall evaluations they get from the state commission monitoring their progress. Nationwide, there's conflicting research on whether charter schools under-enroll kids with learning and behavioral difficulties, as critics often contend. There's also little data on whether special needs students, who leave a traditional public school for a charter, fare any better. But as Jay Field reports, that's exactly what seems to be happening at Maine's first two charter schools.

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Maine Charter Schools Claim Success With Special E Listen
 Duration:
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The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences - MeANS for short - is a high school where a third of the 64 ninth- through twelth-graders reside on campus. Just up the road, Cornville Regional Charter School, serves 90 elementary-age kids in kindergarten through seventh grade.

At both schools, though, faculty members say the same principles are behind the success they're having with special needs students. Flexibility is one.

"We try to give kids whatever it is they need," says Barbara Averill, who runs the special ed program at Cornville. That means giving some of the 14 kids on her caseload a little extra help in the classroom, right alongside their peers. But it also means figuring out which kids need a quieter environment to start making connections.

Jessica Franzose: "Oh, what is she doing?"

Student: "Digging a nest."

Jessica Franzose: "I wonder how many eggs they lay."

Jessica Franzose, one of Averill's ed techs, guides a student through an interactive phonics lesson on a laptop. In the story, a tortoise has dug a nest in the ground.

Jessica Franzose: "Do you know how many eggs they lay?"

Student: "No."

Jessica Franzose: "So let's type that in."

Student: "Takes me a few minutes to find out."

Jessica Franzose: "Take your time. You had your pinky on it. There you go. OWWW. If I pinch you, you say, 'OWWW.'"

A majority of the kids at Cornville previously went to area schools. Roughly 16 percent of Cornville's students have special needs and a state-sanctioned, individualized education program designed to help them. Barbara Averill likes to tell the story of two of those kids. Both, she says, came to Cornville with major behavioral and learning problems.

"And we were able to get them into their classrooms, and they are now thriving, successfully, with support, in their classrooms, with their peers," Averill says. "Whereas a year-and-a-half ago, they were in very restrictive, behavioral type settings."

When those special ed students decided to attend Cornville, their home districts were required to send the state funding - for each kid - on to the charter. The district doesn't get reimbursed. And critics of charters, including administrators in their home districts, complain that's making it harder for traditional public schools to educate all students, including those with special needs.

But Averill, who worked for years in the Farmington public schools, says Cornville's early success with its special ed students has little to do with money. "I think I know the answer - it really boils down to relationships," she says. "We have the opportunity to build strong relationships with all of the children in this building."

Cornville has 90 kids. It has five special ed teachers, including Averill. All children, special needs or not, have personal learning plans. Classrooms are multi-age and kids are allowed to progress through the curriculum at their own pace, regardless of how old they are or what grade they are supposed to be in.

Down at MeANS, which has seen similar early progress with its special ed students, Troy Frost also credits the school's alternative structure. Frost is MeANS director of education. "We're doing something that no other school is doing. We're going year round," Frost says.

At MeANS, Frost says students get the standard public school vacations, plus two weeks in July and two weeks in August.
"If you take three months off in the summer, a lot of times with students who are identified - or even regular ed students - some of those gains are lost."

Ideally, Frost and his colleagues up at Cornville would be able to point to a body of research that supports their early special ed progress. But while there's lots of national research that points to how small schools and teacher-to-student ratios boost student achievement, Robin Lake says there's very little evidence on whether charter schools do a better job teaching special ed students than their traditional counterparts. Lake heads the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"You know, an opportunity that Maine has, being one of the newer states," Lake says, "is to see kind of charter schools as a research and development opportunity."

Lake says by studying the early progress at Maine's charters, all schools across the state, traditional public and charter, will learn more about the best way to help special needs students transcend their difficulties and thrive.



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