When the state threatened to shutter the only charter school in North Carolina that caters to special-needs students, families rallied behind the school, raising thousands of dollars and making personal pleas to state officials.
Dynamic Community Charter School now has a reprieve, if only temporarily. The State Board of Education delayed an expected vote this week on closing the northwest Raleigh school because of financial and operational problems.
Meanwhile, an anonymous donor has given Dynamic $50,000, and state lawmakers have introduced legislation to give additional money to charter schools that serve children with special needs.
At issue is not just how much money the school has but whether it is providing an adequate education to a vulnerable population. Members of the state board clearly have reservations, but parents and students say the school is doing its job.
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Families gathered outside the state education building on Thursday, waving signs and urging the state to consider their views.
Kellie Penny, the mother of a sixth-grader, said students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have struggled academically and socially at other schools are thriving at Dynamic.
“We will fight,” she said. “Special-needs families know how to fight.”
The threat of closure has loomed over the school for months as the state investigated Dynamic’s finances and operations.
In March, the State Board of Education began the process of revoking the school’s charter, citing a budget shortfall of more than $200,000 and problems with the way the school administers its program for students with special needs.
The board was expected to vote Thursday on the revocation but delayed further consideration while school and state officials review the status of Dynamic. The earliest a vote is expected is May.
Dynamic opened in the fall and has 70 middle and high school students with disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders, intellectual delays, dyspraxia, fetal alcohol syndrome and anxiety issues.
Closing the funding gap
Since June, the school has raised more than $200,000 to keep its doors open.
Laura Kay Berry, chairwoman of the school’s board, said the school expects to finish the year without a budget shortfall because of fundraising and additional state funding. School officials also are tackling the special-needs program issues identified by the state.
Berry said the school’s financial difficulties stem in part from the amount of funding the state provides for special needs children and the schedule it is delivered on.
A group of state representatives, including Wake Republicans Gary Pendleton and Paul Stam, introduced a bill Wednesday that would create a pilot program to provide additional money for charter schools with a special needs population of more than 80 percent.
The uncertainty of Dynamic’s future has not discouraged families from applying to the school. A waiting list resulted from the strong interest in the spring enrollment lottery.
But five administrators and teachers have quit this year, in part because of the uncertainty about next year, Berry said.
The state’s concerns about Dynamic’s treatment of students with special needs are rooted in federal law that requires a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
Ensuring a quality education
Decades ago, the law was a way to ensure children with special needs weren’t institutionalized or given a low-quality education.
The law gave way to mainstreaming, which brings children with special needs into the regular classroom as much as possible to ensure equitable treatment.
But the families at Dynamic say that’s not what works for them. They think their children can do better at Dynamic, in an environment where they find acceptance instead of a need to struggle to make a traditional school setting work.
“It’s not that we’re saying mainstreaming is bad. We’re saying mainstreaming is failing a subset of kids,” Berry said.
State officials have said the school isn’t providing an appropriate level of education under the federal law. They’ve cited concerns with teacher licensing and with how students’ individualized education plans are administered.
The school and the state have been working to resolve those problems.
Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, said there’s nothing to prevent a charter school from serving the special needs population, but the state has to ensure the quality of instruction.
“My personal view is that it is an appropriate option for parents who have children that have special needs. … But we have a responsibility as a board that the education that is required is being delivered and also that the financial viability of the school is in good order,” Cobey said.
Stacey Gahagan, an education attorney in Chapel Hill who once founded a charter school, said there’s long-standing tension about how best to educate children who have special needs.
Add in the question of parental choice and charter schools, and the picture becomes even more complicated.
“It’s two conversations that are overlapping in an interesting way,” Gahagan said.