Denver: Center-based and Hands-on Approach to Special Education
Denver Public Schools (DPS) serves as authorizer for approximately 60 charter schools in Denver. It also functions as the Local Education Agency (LEA) for each of those schools.
DPS takes an interesting and unusual approach to serving students with disabilities in charter schools. DPS expects all schools, including charters, to meet the needs of students with mild to moderate disabilities. Students with higher needs are served in centers located within some district and charter schools. Each center offers specialized expertise and services. Students are placed by the IEP team in a particular program, with input from parents.
This center-based approach to enrollment and service delivery has a number of elements that differ considerably from how these issues are handled in most chartering environments. First, the DPS structure makes charter schools more linked to other district schools. Each center serves the larger district as part of the network of specialized centers. So, a center located in a charter school may contain students from district schools, from alternative “innovation schools” in Denver, and/or from other charter schools. That center may have a focus on autism, visual impairments, or multiple disabilities. Students from across Denver may access it.
Second, this clustering approach means that parents of students with severe disabilities may not be able to choose a particular charter school for their children. If a student with profound autism seeks to attend Charter School A, but Charter School A lacks the specialized program she needs, the student will be placed in a school—charter or district, that hosts an appropriate center. This is trade off: it allows for more focused resources but limits parental choice for a small percentage of families. Most students with disabilities in DPS schools have mild to moderate needs, and these students participate in the same district-wide common enrollment process as students without disabilities.
The approach that DPS takes to serving students with significant disabilities in charter schools is relatively new. Up until roughly five years ago, DPS would have placed such students in a handful of centralized district schools designed to serve high needs population.
Now, the centers distribute programs more broadly and include charter schools as hosts. Every school pays a fee ($300 per student) to DPS to fund the centers and other services. Schools that host a center receive funds from DPS to pay for the additional staffing needed to run the program.
Another important element of the way DPS approaches special education in charter schools is its use of “partners” employed by the district and assigned to work with cohorts of charter schools. These partners engage in a mix of compliance monitoring, support, and best practice coaching. They also sometimes serve in an intermediary role with parents, taking part in challenging IEP meetings. The district also relies on “associate partners” who visit schools and offer periodic trainings. As with its unique enrollment process, this hands-on approach to supporting charter school special education programs is a trade-off: it offers supports that help schools deal with the many compliance and programmatic challenges they face but it may also make it difficult for the authorizer to retain the distance needed to evaluate schools and hold them accountable for their performance. It is a difficult balance to achieve.
DPS provides a good example of an innovative approach to special education by a district authorizer that also serves as the LEA for the schools it oversees. Their center-based, hands on approach to their work demonstrates the opportunities and flexibility that charter authorizers can have in driving positive outcomes for students with disabilities in charter schools.