Unintended Segregation in Schools of Last Resort

Published by — Charter schools can be great for the kids who get in, but what about the kids who don’t?


An odd clatter of wheelchairs and colorful walking supports accompanies a little convoy of physically-challenged middle-school students heading to lunch.  Blind kids find their way using sticks with tennis balls on the end.  Others, quite ambulatory, also have obvious challenges.

Not among this sizable group are other students with such challenging behaviors that they’re entitled to Individual Education Plans (IEP), the designation for special education.  This middle school is in a district where urban poverty is so pervasive that kids are steeped in trauma and family chaos, which can result in behaviors that make learning hard for everyone involved.  A high-functioning learning environment depends on a critical mass of students who have somehow acquired middle class, generally cooperative social skills.  Together these kids model healthy, community-appropriate behavior to their challenged peers.

The urban middle school referenced above has far more special needs children (23%) than the state average (15%).  Almost every student is poor.

District schools are socio-economically segregated.

The tiny state of Rhode Island has a million people divided into 36 separate school districts, some densely urban and poor.  The cost of housing in any given district generally determines the class of the students attending its schools.  The U.S. has more than 14,000 school districts, so RI is not alone in creating legal segregation via the district system.  So first, wrap your head around state and national policies that support the socio-economic segregation, which correlates with racial segregation.

Secondarily and accidently, charter schools make some segregation worse.

Alas, Rhode Island no longer publishes the “type of schooling” by district, which might prove my suspicions that our urban middle school loses more students to charter schools than any other in the state.  Its higher-functioning families fill out applications and with luck, leave.  The application deadline disadvantages families who change their residence because of poverty, divorce, or other family issues.  And some families don’t bother with charters.  Their kids remain in the district school.

Mind you, this is no knock on charters.  They’ve been a huge boon to families and students desperate for alternatives to their local school.  In general, RI’s charters are all better than the schools in the district they reside, so you can’t blame the parents.  Nationally the number of kids on wait lists for charters can exceed the enrollment of the schools they’re trying to get into.  Charters are public schools, publicly funded, publicly accountable and subject to the same bazillion state regulations as district schools.

Especially in RI, charters have been huge assets.  Some specialize in hard-to-educate populations.  The International Charter School, a dual-language school, embraces new-immigrant, English-language learners as much-desired assets.  Other charters have social-and-emotional strategies for traumatized or disengaged students.  But generally, charters are too small to be all things to the full range of special needs students.

So, as families leave, charters create schools of last resort as an unintended consequence.  Our urban middle school above was already segregated and then lost a goodly portion of its higher-functioning population, further distilling the special needs.

The annual assault on charters. 

Every year, district employees, parents and local politicians launch new attacks against charters, as though starving charters would improve district performance.  This year, the General Assembly assembled a Legislative Commission to Study and Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula.”  Funding formulas are the state policies designed to distribute equitably state and local money via standardized per-pupil funding.  Charter supporters have been rightfully fearful because district advocates greatly outnumber charter supporters among local politicians.

The Commission produced a report, with no recommendations, made available only as a press release.  Actually, their conclusions were fair and surprisingly balanced.  And to their credit, they flagged the very real problem, noted above, regarding special education.

Solutions to schools of last resort will require honesty and creativity.

First, be honest.  The district system leads to segregation.  Charters only add proportionally to the problem.  Reducing the quality of education for the charter kids isn’t a healthy solution to the increased segregation of an already-segregated school.

Second, be creative.  For example, The Grace School, which is not a public school, specializes in educating high-needs students.  Some years back they opened their doors to “typical” kids on a tuition basis.  Like the English-language learners at International, Grace’s students with serious challenges are valuable assets mingled among “typical” students, with all learning deep lessons in empathy and life.  All students get small classes and the attentions of special educators who are experts in differentiating instruction for the challenged, the middling and the gifted.

In other words, if charter school kids seem to be getting a better deal, learn from their schools how we might give district kids a better deal, too.  Don’t even dream of turning back the clock and making anything worse for any kid, especially not those thriving in charters.  Focus on the kids…  All of them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Charter Educates All Kids, Incl. Special Needs

Published by — Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island has excelled at using Response to Intervention (RTI) to serve students who need the most help.

Someone, not sure who, filled out an application to win Anna a kindergarten seat at theBlackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy (BVP), a charter school in Cumberland, Rhode Island.  Survival consumes her mom, who works several jobs, supporting several kids, by herself.  Developmentally delayed, Anna’s limited communications skills often hit a wall, frustrating her into giant meltdowns and adding to Mom’s burden.

I would have pegged Anna’s family as charter-school “application-challenged.”  When struggling to survive, applying to a charter, returning the confirmation letter, and actually getting a kid to the coveted seat is a big job.

To their credit, BVP recruits application-challenged families by knocking on doors in tough neighborhoods.  If a kid gets in but doesn’t show, they go find him and work out transportation, or whatever issues.

Anna is the sort of special-needs child that many charters have gently turned away.  In the early days, the work of opening a new school was massive enough without developing programs for children with developmental delays, challenging behaviors or issues requiring specialized staff.  These days, however, the best charters are building out their ability to teach whomever shows up.  BVP is one such, but HighlanderLaborers, andLearning Community also spring to mind.

Even so, Colleen Colarusso, Head of BVP Elementary, ruefully admits that Anna “pushed my thinking about our ability to educate all kids.  Sure, poor and minority.  But a few – like Anna – come with very real, very substantial needs.  They can’t communicate well, so we spend a lot of resources going through trial and error to figure it out.”

She continues, “Our goal is to serve the neediest kids in a diverse, integrated environment, hanging on tightly to our middle-class parents.”  About 40 percent of the schools’ kids come from comfortable homes in Lincoln and Cumberland.  They diffuse the concentration — read:  segregation — of students from urban Central Falls and Pawtucket.

BVP groups and re-groups their student “scholars” throughout the day, so each gets individual attention at some point.  This keeps the parents of the smart kids happy, but it also meets all kids where they are, and pushes them to reach for the next challenge.

How do you do that?

Oh, says Colarusso, waiving her hand like it’s a non-issue, “Our whole program is RTI,” meaning Response to Intervention, the badly-named set of protocols designed to respond or intervene immediately whenever a student is not meeting expectations – social, behavioral or academic.  RTI prevents minor challenges from becoming big ones later on.  Colarusso explains, “We get adults together to share ideas about how to intervene with clearly defined goals for the child.  We try our solutions for 6-8 weeks, collect data and then re-evaluate where we are.”  If necessary, RTI repeats that process up to 3 times, in an effort to ramp up the child’s skills, making unnecessary a full-fledged Individual Education Plan (IEP), the indicator a child is in special education.

Many BVP kindergartners merely need help sorting out the sounds, or phonemes, that make up words they’re learning to read.

Others need much more.  In one classroom, I observed four seriously special-needs students.  One had rubbery bands tired on the far legs of his desk so his busy feet could work off the physical anxiety that impedes his learning.  Another needed a special microphone to filter the teacher’s voice from ambient noise, to improve his “auditory processing,” or his brain’s ability to make sense of language.  In all four cases, the school and parents had worked out solutions together.

Anna, however, had the staff flummoxed.  Fortunately for her, her home district is Central Falls, which has the only Superintendent of Schools I know of who actively partners with the charter schools that also educate “her” kids.  She sent her Director of Special Education, Edda Carmadello, to help out.

Colarusso says, “For us, having a relatively young team, it was great to have a more seasoned special educator.  We were struggling and we really needed expert advice.  We continue to call her for her advice on other matters.”  They worked out a new plan for Anna; things have gotten much better.

At this point, about 10 percent of BVP’s student body have IEPs.  About half of those are the sort of children that regular schools often segregate into “self-contained” special-ed classrooms.  BVP’s staff is keenly aware that in urban schools, the percentage of children with extreme needs is more like 20.  That concentration makes it much harder to be successful with the Annas.

True, some unscrupulous charters still send their special-needs kids back to the sending district.  But times are changing.  The best are serving all kids.  BVP’s test scores are off the charts, btw – a story for another day.

The point is that it’s high time to end the myth that charters schools only teach easy kids.

Colarusso and I are out by the playground in the bright, cold day watching kids run, scream and climb.  “Oh great!”  Collarusso exclaims.  I see only exuberant chaos, but she points out a teacher helping Anna successfully navigate the monkey bars.  Anna has asked an adult for help, avoiding a frustrated meltdown. She’s meeting one of her goals.  Big deal.  Collarusso nods and beams, as if to say it’s been a long road, but we’re getting there.

This is when working in education feels great.

          Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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