Are Charter Schools Right for Children with Physical Disabilities?

The answer is a resounding 'maybe'

Article Highlights:
  • When a child has a physical disability, it can be challenging to find the right school for his/her physical, academic, social and extracurricular needs.
  • The article takes a look at the personal experiences of individuals in the MDA community who tried both regular public schools and charter schools before finding the right fit.
  • Writer Donna Albrecht helps parents sort through this important educational decision by providing additional tips and resources.
by Donna Albrecht on July 1, 2013 - 9:12am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 3

Ever wonder if your child with a neuromuscular disease would do better in a different learning environment, but don’t know what else is out there? One option may be a charter school — or maybe not.

Charter schools are public schools

Since 1992, charter schools have become a source of new opportunities in learning. Unlike private schools, there is no additional charge to send children to charter schools; fees are paid from school taxes, just as in traditional public schools. There are currently more than 5,000 public charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 2.3 million students during the 2012-2013 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit advocate for charter schools.

“Charter schools are public school options and they’re available to all families within the district where the charter is located,” says Eric Paisner, chief of staff for NPACS. “There are on-site and online schools and some combine both, and in-person learning. They also look different from regular schools, and may focus on science, tech, engineering and math, or arts. Some charters, by their missions, involve families and ask that parents participate to ensure parents understand the community element is important to their child.”

When asked about students who have IEPs (individual education plans, designed for students with special needs) that require assistive services like bus transportation  and aides, he notes, “Charter schools are not exempt from federal regulations [Section 504 and IDEA] and charters may collaborate with the district to ensure they have appropriate services.”

While every public school — traditional or charter — has fluctuating levels of enrollment of children with disabilities, a study done by the U.S. Government  Accountability Office (GAO) reported that “enrollment of students with disabilities in the aggregate is lower in charter schools than in traditional public schools.” The GAO found that approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools are students with disabilities, compared to about eight percent of students enrolled in charter schools.

To see the whole picture, however, know that in addition to the smaller numbers of kids with disabilities at charter schools, the kinds of disabilities found at charters are not necessarily similar to the mix of disabilities found at traditional public schools. There are many charter schools that focus on teaching only students who have learning disabilities — but in my research, I didn’t find a single charter school specifically for children with physical disabilities.

Autumn, a second-grader living with SMA, attends a charter school.
Anna, who has a form of muscular dystrophy and gastric problems, attends a private school.
Aaron, who has congenital muscular dystrophy, attended the final year of high school via virtual schooling.

The good and the bad

There are definitely some charter schools that go above and beyond the law and provide true accommodations for students with physical disabilities.

Preschool issues for her daughter Autumn, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), convinced Wendy Persinger, of Detroit, Mich., that her local public school was not the best place for Autumn to start kindergarten. Instead, she was enrolled in Taylor Exemplar Academy, a charter school run by National Heritage Academies.

Autumn is a typical second-grader who learns best in a classroom of her peers. “Since day one, Autumn has been provided with an aide,” Persinger says. “She has received speech and occupational therapy every year, and physical therapy this year. The expectations for her are high — and identical to the other students — but at the same time, this school is sensitive to her needs.”

On the other hand, “there are schools that subtly and not so subtly turn kids away who have disabilities,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, quoted in an March 13, 2013, article in the Washington Examiner. “A parent will ask about a school, and they will say, ‘Now, I don’t think we’re well-equipped to help your child. … What they are saying is, ‘We aren’t willing to accommodate your disability,’ which is a very clear violation of the law.”

Debra Zeldin and her daughter Anna, who has a form of muscular dystrophy and gastric problems, experienced this lack of willingness to accommodate Anna’s needs from both her regular public and local charter schools. Even though Anna can walk, she is attached to a continuous infusion, housed in a rolling backpack that gives her nutrition.

Almost from the first day of classes, the neighborhood school tried to convince Zeldin to have Anna home/hospital schooled. They refused to take calls from Anna’s doctors and for a while had her sitting in class between a registered nurse and an educational aide, neither of whom would even take off her coat (they’d call home for Zeldin to come over and do it). Anna started shutting down emotionally and stopped learning in the first grade (probably in part because the nurse or aide would come up with an excuse to send her home by 10 a.m. more days than not, Zeldin says).

Desperate, Zeldin says she started applying to area charter schools, only to discover that once they had seen Anna’s IEP, they would come up with reasons to prevent her from even visiting the schools. Finally, she was referred to Mt. Helix Academy, a private school in La Mesa, Calif., where Anna was welcomed with open arms and is thriving.

Zeldin hired an attorney and pursued due process; the school district is now paying for Anna’s private schooling.

An online option

For many parents of children with neuromuscular disease, a huge problem with traditional schools is that our kids don’t have the strength and stamina of their typically developing peers. Aaron Broussard was struggling in high school because of mobility and note-taking issues resulting from his congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD).

“The IEP wasn’t being followed,” says his mother, Tricia Lafleur. “I was tired of fighting the system and I wanted my son’s senior year to be stress-free for him.”

Aaron attended his senior year by virtual schooling in Erath, La. One huge advantage for Aaron was that the coursework was online, so he could work at the times that were best for him. Another was that each course came with a teacher who could answer his questions and follow his progress.

Another advantage, his mother says, is that even as a virtual student, Aaron was still considered to be enrolled at Erath High School and was able to participate in all school functions.

The number of students taking advantage of online education is growing. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 1.8 million students were enrolled in at least one distance-education course for the 2009- 2010 school year, and an additional 200,000 were attending full-time online courses. The bad news is that only 41 states and the District of Columbia have full-time online schools, and 27 states have virtual schools.

When looking for online education resources, try the North American Council for Online Learning. In addition, contact your school district to see what online programs already have been approved and used by other students in the district.

There is no golden ticket that will guarantee your child a good education in either traditional or charter public schools — or even private schools. But it never hurts to check out all the options available. It’s also a great idea to meet with the social workers and others at your local MDA office and clinic for insight and assistance.

Donna Albrecht is a writer based in Northern California. She gained personal experience with school accommodations thanks to her daughters Katie and Abby, who each had type 2 spinal muscular atrophy.

In considering the best school placement, first analyze your child’s educational needs:

  • Academically, is your child receiving an education appropriate for his or her age and intellectual abilities?
  • Considering your child’s physical needs, would he or she do better in a program that is all home-based, or where some or all of the classes are online? Perhaps you can work with the school district to have your child attend classes half days and do the rest of the schoolwork online.
  • Considering your child’s social needs, what learning environment will work best?
  • What kinds of speech, physical, occupational or other therapies does your child need, and how can those needs be met?
  • Does your child want to participate in any specific extracurricular activities? Which educational choice would best enhance these very personal learning activities?

After creating a profile of your child’s educational needs, next begin your research:

  • Check your school district’s Web page. It should have information about all the schools under its umbrella. Does it list any charter schools?
  • Check your state charter school website. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) provides a list of states that have charter schools and links to each state’s policies.
  • Look through the available options and determine if any would serve your child better than his or her current placement.
  • Visit the site (or contact the virtual site) with your child — and possibly a trusted consultant, such as a physical therapist or current school aide — to get a better feel for the place and the people who will educate your child.

If you believe this is a desirable option, set up meetings with both your child’s current school and the potential new one, and have them “sell” you on how they can best serve your child’s needs.

MDA stands ready to be your educational partner. An MDA staff member will come to a child’s school and do a faculty and/or student presentation about neuromuscular disease, helping ease the transition to a new school or classroom.

In addition, MDA can help parents think through needed school accommodations, and can help keep important lines of communication open with school personnel.

To learn more about MDA’s educational advocacy assistance, and to access a wealth of online information for students with neuromuscular disease — from A Teacher’s Guide to Neuromuscular Diseases to information about going to college — visit MDA’s Educational Resources page, or contact your closest MDA office.

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