In 2015, I co-founded Kingsman Academy Public Charter School. We welcome all high school students and center those who are overage and under-credited, who have attendance problems or have behavioral or emotional challenges.
Here at Kingsman, 45 percent of our scholars require special education services, while in the District of Columbia Public Schools as a whole, the share of students using special education services is just 14 percent.
Our school’s philosophy puts students with disabilities at the forefront of our model and the center of our decision-making. We intentionally integrate rich special education services into our school’s design. We offer small class sizes coupled with individualized instruction, project-based learning and blended learning opportunities to support each student where they are. We check student learning daily and assess progress toward individualized education plan (IEP) goals quarterly. Our middle school students master a literacy-based, social-justice-themed curriculum that includes projects, fieldwork and independent research.
In our high school, we offer special programs tailored to student athletes planning to play in college, career and technical education, and flexible scheduling for our oldest students. (Students may attend Kingsman through age 24.) We also expect all our students to complete 100 hours of community service as a graduation requirement.
While controversy rages over the question of whether charter schools as a group suspended and expel students at a greater, lesser or comparable rate to traditional public schools, a recent National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools report shows both school types suspend students with disabilities at high rates compared to suspensions of students overall. However, at Kingsman last year, only 1.2 percent of our students were suspended, and none were expelled. Our thoughtful approach to student behavior includes restorative justice approaches and a focus on relationships.
Equity Principles Give Schools and Parents a Compass
In 2016, when I heard about the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools’ Equity Coalition, I joined with enthusiasm, to honor our school’s commitment to quality and innovation. The coalition presents a unique opportunity to collaborate with like-minded stakeholders committed to improving special education in charter schools.
The work has afforded me the opportunity to learn about best practices from charter schools across the country. For example, through the Equity Coalition, I learned about Hope Academy, a charter school in Indiana that is connected to a hospital, so that students struggling to overcome substance abuse can receive treatment while remaining enrolled and actively engaging in school. We need more of this kind of creative thinking to serve all students, especially those in the most difficult situations.
As a member of the Equity Coalition, I co-authored and signed on to the Principles of Equitable Schools, which establish clear guidance for schools in serving students with disabilities, and set a standard by which parents, policymakers and other stakeholders can evaluate a school’s quality and capacity to serve all students inclusively and with accountability. The seven principles—accessibility, inclusion, quality, collaboration, accountability, autonomy and flexibility and resources—mirror our values at Kingsman Academy.
The principles have helped our school hold deeper conversations about where we are and what we need to do to ensure that we consistently provide an equitable learning environment for all our scholars. For example, we have surveyed our scholars to determine their interests and used the results to make the learning environment more engaging and to tailor instruction to meet their needs more closely. This has allowed us to deepen our understanding of the principle of inclusion.
The principles also encourage me to consider new approaches to providing high-quality special education services and keep learning about different models for serving students with disabilities.
Through the Equity Coalition, I learned about the National Center for Learning Disabilities website, Understood, which offers tools to help parents and educators better understand children with learning and attention issues. I shared the information with my school team so they have additional perspectives on the work and more tools to communicate with parents.
The Principles for Equitable Schools remind us that we must be flexible to maintain high standards, promote quality and cultivate innovation. Launching and tweaking new systems, processes and supports can create staffing and financial challenges for schools and districts. But change comes more easily when all parties involved are committed to equity and it is clear that students will benefit from those changes.
At Kingsman Academy, we have deepened our commitment to learn from others and make change when necessary. We encourage education leaders from around the country to join us in our commitment to ensuring every student with a disability has the support and services they need to learn alongside their peers.