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My student Bryson has moderate to severe autism. He thrives on routine and learns in a very specific way. When it was announced that our schools were moving to distance learning due to COVID-19, I immediately thought of Bryson.
Bryson had just learned to read. What if he lost that skill? His mom was relishing him showing affection by saying “I love you” and giving kisses. How would this change once she was his teacher?
While distance learning immediately caused changes for all students, our special education population had needs that could not be met through video conferencing or online assignments. To say these past months have been challenging for students like Bryson, their parents, and teachers like me, is an understatement.
Distance learning forced us into new roles. Just like Bryson’s mother, parents were forced to balance being both parent and teacher. We had to balance our child’s frustrations with schoolwork we were not trained to teach. We had to make judgment calls to balance academic and emotional needs.
Teachers have also had to figure out how to deliver the social-emotional and academic support their students needed during this time, all while moving to completely new platforms and methods.
I’m proud that despite everything that is going on we are continuing to deliver on our promise and commitment to students with special needs, ensuring that families like Bryson’s who chose a charter school like ours are supported through these challenging times.
We rearranged our schedule to allow for video conferencing at 7 p.m. because that’s when mom was finally home and could get online. We became expert multi-taskers. And we repeatedly tapped into one of the core features of a charter school – that of immense flexibility – to band together, make quick changes, and also give grace to our families.
Recently released research based on data from the Texas Education Agency shows that statewide, charter schools are having a tremendous impact on students with special needs. Students with special needs in charter schools have higher reading scores, are more likely to be in inclusive settings, and are enrolling in college at double the rate of their district peers.
Charter schools aren’t getting these results because our students are different or our teachers care more. Anyone who spends their days working with students with special needs has a deep and admirable passion for their students. The key difference is the environment. In addition to flexibility, charter schools are great at personalizing learning.
For children at a charter school focused on social emotional learning, this looks like morning meetings, child self-reflection, and the possibility for self-paced learning. For children at a charter school focused on technology-rich education, this could look like devices given to each child and classes focused on learning different programs. At my classical education charter school, it looks like high behavioral expectations with a focus on great literature and the Socratic method of teaching.
Each of these offer a unique environment that isn’t found at many local district schools due to the constraints and consistency of programs they wish to establish within their district.
It’s often heard that parents don’t realize charter schools are in fact public schools. Charter schools provide an education for all students just like local districts; however, charters also have the advantage of greater flexibility. In a charter school, I have the flexibility to tailor instruction to each and every student I serve.
When I was in a local district school, I found that the drive for consistency between programming at schools led to programs that were defined by the results of a student’s individual evaluation, as well as numbers and funding. Instead of looking at the child as a whole, students were dictated into numbers and then a program was recommended based on this loose evaluation. Parents who were highly-informed were better positioned to fight for change, yet many didn’t know the programming was wrong or didn’t understand that they had a right to argue and question the way things were.
The flexibility of curriculum and mission provided to charter schools allows a focus on and attention to the whole child and how educators can best tailor the school’s mission and program to fit each child’s needs. Charters are not subject to the same system-wide programming decisions that hamstring teachers from personalizing learning for each and every kid.
Students with special needs are flourishing in charter schools because they have found the environment that is right for them.
As we have navigated these challenging circumstances over the past two months, it’s features like flexibility and personalization that have allowed us to ease the burden on parents, continue supporting and teaching our students, and to make the most of an unprecedented situation.
When I wonder what next year will hold for teachers like me and students like Bryson, I am confident that we are doing all we can and will continue to do so no matter the circumstances that are thrown our way. The flexibility and autonomy that we have to make necessary adjustments will continue to serve our community well.
Every single student with special needs deserves an education that will prepare them for a bright future. This right doesn’t change – even in a pandemic – and I’m proud to be fighting daily alongside my colleagues for kids like Bryson.
I hope that if educators and parents learn anything from this crisis, it’s that we need to be more student-centered and flexible. We need to put kids first by providing every child with the short-term support they need to make long term gains. This is how we return to the heart of special education – regardless of the type of school – and it’s the best thing we can do for our children now and in the future.