KIPP should be given a chance to run Camden charter schools

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

This week NJ Spotlight acquired, via a formal Open Records Act request, the application from KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy to the Camden City Board of Education. The applicants hope to create up to five charter schools under the auspices of N.J.’s Urban Hope Act, a bill passed last January that allows non-profits to operate new schools in Newark, Trenton, and Camden.

The application process has not been lacking in melodrama. (See here for previous Newsworks coverage.) While Mayor Dana Reed heartily supports other options in Camden besides its dismal traditional schools, the school board initially rejected all applications and later, only begrudgingly, agreed to consider the one from KIPP, a highly-regarded program that serves 41,000 kids in the country and operates five schools in Newark.

KIPP’s application to the Camden looks pretty bland on the surface: mostly facilities and budget planning material. But one third of the opening section is devoted to special education, a tightly regulated arena governed by state and federal law that mandates that all public schools provide special needs students with appropriate support and services.

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The reason for this emphasis on special education is significant. While here’s a widespread belief that charter schools discourage enrollment of students with disabilities, KIPP argues that, in fact, the organization welcomes special needs kids. This commitment is especially relevant to Camden Public Schools, which has a dismal track record of accurately labeling students and serving those who are eligible for services.

First, let’s look at this section of the KIPP application, which includes a description of the “ambitious achievement goals” it uses for children with disabilities in its five Newark schools. Those goals include “improved longitudinal results year over year and exhibiting significantly increased academic achievement.”

KIPP’s objectives are backed up by the performance of special needs students in its Newark charter schools. “By the 11th grade,” the application notes, “our founding class of high school students with special needs outperformed not only their peers with special needs across the state, but also all General Education students in New Jersey.”

Now KIPP affirms its commitment to children with disabilities: “not only does TEAM [the Newark KIPP charter school group] serve one of the largest Special Education populations of any school, regardless of size, in the city of Newark, but each campus also serves a wide range of needs along the spectrum. A full 15 percent of TEAM students qualify for special education services, and that number grows each year and is often as high as 20 percent or more in new incoming classes.”

KIPP’s emphasis highlights one of the dysfunctions of Camden Public Schools, which was described in the recent “Needs Analysis” commissioned by the Camden school board. This district-wide assessment notes that one in five students in the district has been identified as eligible for special education services. By the time Camden public school kids get to middle and high school, the report says, one in three diagnosed with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. Camden High School’s most recent State Report Card lists 35.4% of its 889 students as classified. (New Jersey’s state average is about 15 percent.)

The Needs Analysis notes that the Camden school board and administration seem to exhibit little curiosity regarding this disproportional classification rate: “there is little evidence to suggest that the district has analyzed the root cause for the high identification rate, nor adequately prepared for the proportional increase of students within its schools requiring special education services.” And once children are classified in Camden, with its attendant lowered expectations, they’re stuck. “The rate of students who reenter general education is dismal…only 13 out of 2,626.”

This sky-high classification rate of special needs kids wouldn’t be a problem if, in fact, over a third of the kids there are really disabled. Of course, they’re not. This practice of over-classification subjects non-disabled students to lowered expectations and exclusion from standard accountability metrics. No wonder Camden High’s graduation rate is 49%.

Camden’s traditional public schools are failing to educate its students, and its inability to manage its special education department is part of the problem. If KIPP can do it better – and it’s hard, as the Needs Analysis acknowledges, to imagine it doing any worse – then that’s just one more reason for the Camden School Board to approve KIPP’s application.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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