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Charter Board Partners

Board members: Step up on special ed

December 13, 2018 | by Kate Essex

Special education and all of the legal, instructional, financial, and talent considerations it requires, is a hefty topic to tackle first thing on a Tuesday morning. (Would you like a side of acronyms with that muffin?) 

Earlier this month, CBP partnered with the DC Special Education Cooperative to convene charter school board members for a breakfast training focused on special education in charter schools. 

Most of the board members who attended do not have an education background. I give them huge credit for showing up. Many board members find that it is hard enough to wrap their arms around the basics of understanding academic outcomes—special education students and their needs are rarely a focus of conversation. As one board member candidly admitted: “I know we serve a high proportion of special ed students, but I only hear about them when it’s budget season.” 

We are hoping to change that. Only 6 percent of DC’s special education students are currently achieving proficiency on the District's end-of-year assessment, the PARCC. With 46 percent of DC’s special education students enrolled in charter schools, this staggering data point should be very much on the mind of every charter school board member. Couple that with the fact that research has shown that students with disabilities are disciplined at rates twice as high as their peer group. When you break that down by race, the gap widens even more. Board members have to lead the charge to push their schools to find ways to ensure they are meeting the needs of every student they enroll, and delivering on the promises they are making to their families. 

How can a board do this? While I know this is more complicated than a short list, I will humbly offer up three places to start. 

  1. Ask the right questions. One of CBP’s governance-guru role models, Robert Tricker, says: “If management is about running the business, governance is about seeing that it is being run properly.” Our presenters gave board members concrete questions they can ask school leaders—questions that can serve as quality-checks and drive solution-oriented conversations. Some examples: 
    • What steps are being taken to ensure we have discipline policies and procedures in place that are consistent with the current legal requirements?
    • If there are challenges with policies, procedures or practice, are we seeking technical assistance?
    • What is parent satisfaction level with our special education program? How are we measuring it?
    • What percentage of students with IEPs are mastering their IEP goals? 
    • Based on our outcomes, do we have the staffing we need?
  2. Use a data dashboard. Every board should be reviewing high-level, year-over-year academic and discipline data every month, broken down by sub-group (race, special education, ELL students, etc.). Do not rely on stories and do not look at aggregate information alone--you will miss the full picture. Use the dashboard to drive board conversations the same way you would if your car dashboard was telling you to get something checked out. If the suspension rates are troubling, stop and discuss with your board and leader—what is being done to address this and what can we do to help? If there are marked changes month-over-month or year-over-year, pause to discuss potential reasons for these changes and understand if there is cause for concern.
  3. Build a strong School Performance Committee (also called an Academic or Education Committee). This is the committee that should be digging into academic data monthly by sub-group, discussing trends, exploring solutions when necessary, and deciding what needs to be brought to the full board’s attention. Every board needs at least one skilled educator around the board table who can lead this discussion and help translate for the rest of the board. This committee, in addition to its ongoing monitoring, should play a lead role in budget conversations and should plan an annual training for the full board. We recommend this happen in September, so that you can cover last year’s assessment results and share what the board should expect to see in the academic program in the year ahead. 

We know that this is a big topic, and we are committed to putting a lot of this down on paper so that we have useful tools to share with boards that want to do a better job focusing on special education. Expect to see those coming your way early in 2019. I am very grateful to the experts who are working with us to get this information out to board members, and to every charter school board willing to say that they can and will do better by the kids in their schools whose futures are depending on it. 

A big thank-you to the experts who participated in the training event in early October: Julie Camerata, Special Education Co-Operative, Lydia Carlis, eyemaginED, and Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, Advocates for Justice in Education.

Kate Essex is the Chief Governance and Business Strategy Officer at Charter Board Partners. 


Image credit: U.S. Department of Education

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