Jessica Hughes, Alicia Long, Erick Mudge and Wendy Ginther are students at the Center for Discovery Learning.
Jessica Hughes, Alicia Long, Erick Mudge and Wendy Ginther are students at the Center for Discovery Learning.
Brett Amole

One for All

If they went to a traditional high school, Wendy Ginther and her three best friends would probably be in different cliques. Wendy, who is articulate beyond her seventeen years, is the writer. Erick Mudge, who's wearing a T-shirt with a Celtic design and a crystal around his neck, is the spiritual one. Alicia Long, with her long skirt and long, straight hair, is the beatnik. Jessica Hughes, donning black leather pants and bold eye makeup, is the "drama queen."

Instead, they go to the Center for Discovery Learning, a charter school in Jefferson County that all four say has changed their lives. In Wendy's case, the school saved her life.

Wendy, Erick and Alicia all have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), an affliction they say made it almost impossible for them to succeed in regular public schools.

Wendy was diagnosed when she was six years old, but she did well in Boulder Valley public schools through the seventh grade. "They stuck me in this special-education study hall," she says, "but then I didn't get it anymore in eighth grade. I'm not sure why; it may have been because my grades improved or because it was just a seventh-grade thing, but when I didn't have that study hall, my grades started to drop."

Because of ADD, Wendy has a difficult time transitioning from one subject to another. "I couldn't learn what they were teaching me. And I was fighting off depression," she says. "I couldn't go from thinking about history to thinking about math. I would still be thinking about history when I was in math class. It's like a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad. Unless you find something so engrossing that you can't stop, you can't focus."

When she was a freshman at Arvada High School, the social pressures that came with being a teenager made school even more difficult. "The way you perform socially and academically are totally interrelated," says Wendy, who felt like an outcast. She had problems concentrating on her schoolwork while the popular students did well. "In ninth grade, a family member who I was really close to died, and that's when the shit hit the fan. I had no motivation, and the depression was crippling. I heard over and over from teachers, 'You're a smart girl, why can't you do this?' It made me feel so degraded. I knew I was smart, and I didn't know why I couldn't do it, either. I flunked all of my classes except for drama, teen living and one semester of English. I couldn't cope with not being able to learn, so I tried to kill myself."

Wendy overdosed on her antidepressant medication. She spent three days in a hospital intensive-care unit. After that, she spent ten days in the adolescent psychiatric unit at Children's Hospital and another two weeks in an outpatient treatment program. Before the suicide attempt, Wendy's mother had talked to her about alternative schools, but Wendy hadn't wanted to switch. Afterward, though, she listened to the special-education coordinator at Arvada High, who suggested she try CDL.

"When I walked in the door at CDL, the atmosphere was so friendly. I knew it was the school for me," she says. "This school caters to my learning. Here we have one class that we go to all day. I get a lot of science, history and math in my astrology class, but I can get it. I can really focus."

Like Wendy, Erick has also learned to focus at CDL. He enrolled after attending Arvada Middle School. "For people with ADD, doing three things at once is normal. Your mind thinks of so many things at once that you leave a lot of unfinished projects. You always plan to return to a project later, but that can mean six months later," he says. "I was put in special education in fourth grade because I was procrastinating. After two years here, I got out of special education. I told the teacher that the school was meeting my needs so I didn't have to be in special education anymore.

"The problem with a lot of schools is that they use one method of teaching," he continues. "I think of the human brain as a computer, and I think of teaching as software. Standing up and lecturing is compatible with certain types of operating systems, but not all."

Alicia says the intensive block classes at CDL have enabled her to finally focus, too. "I think I've overcome ADD...I mean, I've learned to overcome its side effects," she explains. "I don't think I would have been able to do that in a regular school. But it wasn't easy. It's taken four years."

This spring, Wendy, Erick and Alicia will graduate; Jessica, who isn't in special education but had behavioral problems ("I was a bully in middle school -- one of the people that beat up other kids for their lunch money," she says) has one more year. Alicia wants to be a fashion designer, Erick wants to work, and Wendy plans to go to college.

Parents of kids who need special education -- ranging from those with learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADD to severe mental retardation -- have been complaining for years that regular public schools don't involve them enough in developing their kids' federally mandated Individualized Education Plans (IEPs); that their children are isolated from their peers when they're pulled out of regular classrooms for special instruction; that when there are too many other students in the regular classrooms, their children don't get enough attention; and that classes aren't designed to engage their children.

Many of those parents are now finding that their kids fare better at charter schools like CDL that have experiential curricula -- meaning that rather than just take notes, students learn by doing projects and going on trips. The small class sizes allow their children to get more attention from teachers, and the intense courses keep them focused.

At CDL, teachers go one step further. None of the special-education students are pulled out of class for one-on-one attention; instead, teachers come into class to help them. And every student there has what the school calls a Personal Learning Plan -- not just the special-ed students.

"Within six months of transferring to CDL, Wendy was a completely different child," says her mother, Lynne Ginther. "I call it my miracle school. This is what we were looking for in regular public schools and never found."

This year, fifty students at CDL, which has a total of 200 kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade, are receiving some sort of special education. In fact, every year since the school opened in 1993, between 20 and 25 percent of the school's population has consisted of special education students. (The average percentage of special-ed students in regular public schools in Colorado is 10 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education.) The majority are emotionally disturbed or have moderate learning disabilities; none have severe mental or physical handicaps.

Although CDL is one of the state's poorest-performing schools on standardized tests and has one of the lowest graduation rates among the Jefferson County Public Schools, that hasn't hurt enrollment. There is currently a fifty-student waiting list. But because experiential-learning schools are becoming so popular with special-education students, CDL and other charter schools like it are struggling to meet the needs of those kids on limited budgets and without changing their educational philosophies.

"It puts a tremendous burden on the charter schools to meet the requirements of special-education laws," Lynne Ginther acknowledges. "It's a Catch-22. Here we have a learning model that's right for these kids, but charter schools don't have the resources. I think it's a real crying shame."

When Gayle Civish came to the Center for Discovery Learning three years ago, the school handled special-education students in much the same way as many regular public schools: The students were pulled out of their regular classes during the day and taken to the "resource room," where they received specialized instruction. Civish, a teacher and the school psychologist, was hired to develop a new special-education program.

Since every kid at CDL already has a Personal Learning Plan -- which is similar to an IEP but shorter in length -- Civish decided that the best way to help special-ed students was to send a teacher into the classroom rather than pull a student out. Classes at CDL are loosely structured, so the intrusions are barely noticeable -- and parents love it, she says.

Janice Benedict has been involved with CDL since its inception. Her sixth-grade son, who is in special education, enrolled as a kindergartner; her other son, who is in tenth grade, enrolled as a fourth-grader. "The school started out doing pullout, and the more that happened, the more people said that that doesn't fit the model of the school. I, for one, was there saying, 'Let's not pull out and group students based on ability,'" she says. "It's a relatively new thing to not pull kids out. It takes a lot of creativity and a lot of support to teach them in a regular classroom."

The Center for Discovery Learning, formerly called Community Involved Charter School, is one of Colorado's oldest charter schools. It was designed for students who wanted an alternative to regular public schools, and it got a lot of bad publicity early on. Five students on a 1996 school camping trip to the mountains were accused of accidentally starting the Buffalo Creek fire, which burnt 12,000 acres in Pike National Forest and destroyed six homes. Strong winds supposedly spread the kids' campfire to the surrounding forest; the students claimed they had put out their campfire before the forest fire started. One homeowner sued the school and Jefferson County Public Schools, alleging that the students were using drugs during the campout. A federal judge later dismissed the case.

CDL, which is located in the back of New Life Church, at Wadsworth Boulevard and Woodard Drive in Lakewood, has also been at odds with neighbors, who have accused students of littering in their yards.

"What I'd like to see is the school culture change so that more kids will achieve success. In good alternative schools, if a new student comes and acts out, they won't have to be corrected by adults -- the other students won't allow it," says CDL principal David Hazen, who came to the school last fall.

He'd visited an alternative school a few years ago where students held each other accountable for their actions; after a student's backpack was stolen, student leaders held a meeting at which they told their classmates that they wouldn't tolerate theft in a place where they're supposed to trust one another. That's the kind of culture Hazen would like to see at CDL, and he says it's finally beginning to happen. "A strong student culture is a prerequisite for academic success," he says. "Some kids were disengaged in their previous schools, and they need to find something here that engages them. Once they find that, maybe they'll be motivated to do something academically."

CDL isn't exactly known for its academic success, though -- at least not in the way student achievement is typically measured. The Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden that issues report cards on every Colorado school, gave CDL's elementary-school portion an F based on its Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores for third- and fifth-graders. The middle-school portion received a D, and the high-school portion got a C.

In 1999, only 47 percent of CDL students graduated, compared to 80 percent district-wide; just 72 CDL students have graduated since 1996.

CDL students have also performed poorly on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, the annual test that Governor Bill Owens will use to evaluate public schools; 10.5 percent of the seventh-graders who were tested scored an unsatisfactory in writing in 1999, and 31.6 percent scored an unsatisfactory in reading. In the rest of the Jeffco school district, only 1.3 percent of seventh-graders scored an unsatisfactory in writing, and 10 percent had unsatisfactory reading scores.

David Spinks, director of special education for choice and charter schools in Jefferson County and principal of Fletcher Miller, a Jeff-co public school for kids with severe mental and physical disabilities, says that because of the emphasis that's been placed on tests, "the openness to try different things at neighborhood schools has been squashed. The testing is symptomatic of the movement toward charter schools. The focus in regular public schools has become very regimented and academic, and for kids with learning disabilities, it has only exacerbated their difficulties."

Hazen says it's unfair for his school to be compared to other schools when 25 percent of the population at CDL is made up of special-ed students. "Special-education students are required to take the CSAP, which is crazy," he says. "Those scores are held against us. We're getting punished for educating these kids when other schools are not, and there's a possibility that we won't survive as a school because of it."

The classes at CDL are modeled after those at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where there are "blocks" instead of semesters. The school year consists of six six-week blocks, plus an orientation block during which students get accustomed to the unorthodox schedule. Students take one block at a time, an intensive, interdisciplinary course in one subject area. The kids don't receive grades; their progress is monitored instead by "transcripts" they write themselves summarizing what they've learned. The blocks usually culminate with a trip during which everything the students learned in the previous six weeks comes together. Last year, for example, Civish taught an animal-tracking course. Over the summer, her students went to the Delaware Water Gap, a national recreation area in New Jersey, to apply what they had learned during the school year; while there, they tracked raccoons, bears, rodents, rabbits, birds, foxes, badgers and deer.

This spring, students in a class called "Mayans and Manta Rays: A Comprehensive Study of Indigenous Peoples and Marine Biology" will travel to Belize, where they will spend three weeks helping Mayan Indians build a school, studying marine science and scuba diving. The kids are required to raise money to pay for their trips.

Students at CDL aren't grouped by grade level, but by "seasons." Seasons one and two consist mostly of preschool, kindergarten and elementary-aged children; the other three seasons are for middle- and high-school-aged students. To pass from season two to season three, students must conduct an in-depth study on a topic of their choice. In order to graduate, they have to complete a total of five more in-depth studies throughout seasons three, four and five.

The very features that make the school so attractive to special-education students also make it so hard -- and expensive -- to deliver.

"What's unmanageable is the paperwork," explains Civish, who conducts the special-ed students' diagnostic tests and helps the teachers draw up the IEPs. "The amount of paperwork required by the IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) is very time-consuming. IEPs are long and have to be filled out in the correct way. We have to send out letters ten days ahead of time to inform parents of IEP meetings, which we're required to hold at least once a year, and we have to send a separate letter to kids over the age of fourteen. Keeping extra track of fifty kids out of 200 is really hard. If we change one thing in their IEP, we have to hold another meeting. If we had fewer kids staffed, we'd spend less time doing paperwork and more time with the kids."

While regular public schools receive full funding from the state, charter schools get only 95 percent of the state's per-pupil operating revenue. On top of that, charter schools often have to pay rent or purchase their own buildings. Of the state's 79 charter schools, 57 pay for their own buildings. CDL has a budget of just over $1 million, and 17 percent of it goes toward rent alone. Charter schools may soon get a boost if Governor Owens is successful in his effort to divert $28.4 million from Amendment 23, the recently passed school-funding ballot initiative, to help charter schools purchase or rent buildings. Owens has also said that he'd like to dip into Amendment 23 money to increase statewide special-education funding by $6.5 million next year. The state legislature will have to approve his plans before they can take effect, however.

The lack of funding makes providing special-education services to a quarter of its students a challenge for CDL. The school can only afford one full-time and one part-time special-ed teacher. The IQ tests Civish administers every year cost between $600 and $800; the educational achievement tests cost $700, and the school had to purchase a $1,500 laptop computer to keep the special-ed students' records separate from those of the other students because of confidentiality laws. The school also has to purchase extra educational materials for special-ed students such as books for kids with dyslexia and books on tape for auditory learners. On the rare occasion that a student needs speech or occupational therapy, the school contracts out those services, which run about $50 an hour.

John Olson, the school's full-time special-education teacher, says that because class sizes are small -- fifteen students to one teacher in the younger seasons and twenty to one in the upper levels -- giving students personalized attention isn't so hard. "The difficulty comes in working with the regular-education teachers on how to differentiate instruction to meet all the kids' needs," he says.

Hazen says that if the school continues to attract such high numbers of special-education students and can't hire additional special-ed teachers, its mission may eventually have to change. "We've been fighting that, because our mission is for students to become self-directed learners," he says. "It takes a lot of work to get students to a point where they can work independently, and it's really difficult when we don't have enough staff."

And he's frank about his school's situation. "The percentage of special-education students we have is too large," he says. "Fifteen percent would be more manageable."

To handle their growing number of special-education students, charter schools are sometimes forced to do the same thing as their regular public-school counterparts and "counsel out" certain students by recommending that they go back to traditional public schools.

"For a student who needs a very structured, orderly environment, this is not a good school," says Olson, adding that both special-education and non-special-education students have been counseled out.

Civish tells parents of special-education students who appear to need more structure that the school will "try them out" on a probationary basis. If the student misses class, doesn't parti-cipate or simply can't perform without a lot of hand-holding, the teachers work with the parents to find a better school for them.

"You can't really tell from a past IEP whether they'll be a good fit here," she says. "We can't have kids who won't develop a sense of community or who will wander off on a trip -- it's just not safe."

The school doesn't keep track of how many special-education students have been counseled out over the years, but Civish guesses it's probably less than 5 percent of the total student population. "There have been a couple of students this year who have gone through the whole counseling-out process. One left and one ended up staying," Olson says.

"For those who insist on staying, we come up with a plan for how we can meet their goals here," Civish adds.

Because charter schools are public, they have to abide by the same laws that govern regular public schools, and that includes not turning away students based on a disability. (Charter schools have more autonomy than regular public schools, though, and can do things such as hire non-certified teachers and give out written evaluations instead of grades.) Most charter schools first try to accommodate kids without modifying their offerings and then suggest they go elsewhere if they don't "fit."

By doing so, these schools are dabbling in a legal gray area, according to Lauren Rhim, a University of Maryland researcher who recently completed a seven-state study of special education in charter schools.

"By law, public schools, including charter schools, need to look at children as individuals," she says. "The question schools need to answer is, 'How can we enable a child access to our curriculum?' The attitude at a lot of charter schools is, 'This is our model, and any student can come to our school, but we're not going to change our program.' Well, that's not the nature of our special-education laws, and a parent who knows better will eventually sue."

Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, agrees that the practice of counseling students out will probably be challenged in court one day. But, he asks, "How do you have specialized schools without ruining them by doing everything for everyone? The reality is that some kids don't do well at certain schools."

Scott Kuster understands this dilemma. The principal of Community of Learners, an experiential charter school in Durango, Kuster says his school has been inundated with special-education students. When kids aren't doing well in regular public schools, Kuster says, doctors, mental-health professionals, principals and people in the juvenile-justice system recommend that they go to Community of Learners. "Not only do people recommend that kids with challenges come here, they recommend that gifted kids not come here," he says. "There's been a big debate here, because the district has asked us several times if we'd like to be its at-risk school, but we don't want to, because we want to appeal to the needs of both highly skilled and highly challenged kids. Students at many schools fall on a bell curve; ours is more like a barbell, with 40 percent highly challenged, 20 percent in the middle and 40 percent highly motivated."

Community of Learners, which has 75 sixth- through twelfth-graders, usually consists of 20 percent special-education students; this year there are only six, but Kuster expects that some kids who are currently enrolled will be identified as special-ed students after they are tested.

To handle the load, Kuster hired a full-time therapist this year -- an extravagance for such a small school. "She trains teachers how to deal with schizophrenic and bipolar students," he says. "In the past, our teachers had no mental-health training. Also, a lot of kids have been diagnosed that we wouldn't have known about had we not had a therapist on hand. It's expensive to hire a full-time therapist, but we felt it was absolutely essential."

Instead of counseling out special-education students, however, Community of Learners last month began something called the Discovery Program, a curriculum borrowed from Centennial High School in Fort Collins. All enrolling students have to take the Discovery class four days a week for nine weeks; in it, they learn anger-management skills, group-building skills, self-awareness, assertiveness, problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. "We're saying, 'If you're going to participate in this school, this is what we require,'" Kuster says. "Some kids think they can smoke or skip class and still make it through the Discovery Program, but they can't. It's somewhat of a culture change in the school; it sets guidelines and consequences. Kids who don't go through the Discovery Program can't take our classes."

Already, six kids haven't made it through the Discovery Program; some were skipping class, while others just weren't participating. Kuster predicts that by the end of the first class, at least six more will fail. For those who don't pass, the school has hired two part-time staffers to supervise them until they can retake the class or until another school can be found. "We are a public school, and if they're not making it here, we have to create another program for them," he says.

And so the school is offering a new class that uses Extra Learning, an interactive computer program that diagnoses kids' reading and writing skills. Students who haven't succeeded in the Discovery Program will spend three hours a day working with that software; the rest of their day will be spent working on portfolios and independent projects. "The more you provide the services, the more these kids come. How do you do that without becoming the de facto at-risk school?" Kuster wonders. "We don't want to just dump kids in other schools."

Neither does Jean Lovelace, principal at Southwest Open School in Cortez. Still, she sees students who just can't handle the independent learning environment at her school, which has been around for fourteen years but has only recently become a charter school. Just over 11 percent of the 148-student school is made up of special-education students this year, but Lovelace says the number is usually around 20 percent and she expects it to return to that level. "Students sign a contract when they come here saying they know they can get dropped. If they don't show up for classes, if they don't turn in their homework and if they don't get A's or B's, we will drop them and recommend they go to another school," she says. Those rules apply to all kids, not just special-education students.

P.S.1, an experiential-learning charter school in Denver, is made up of about 15 percent special-ed students. While most charter schools don't have students with severe needs, P.S.1 has one student who has seizures and requires an aide, as well as other students who need speech therapy and psychologists, according to the school's executive director, Paul Hoskins. The school can only afford to hire one full-time and one part-time special-ed teacher, though. "Three special-education teachers, or one for every ten or twelve students, would be ideal," he says.

Most charter schools have nowhere near the number of special-ed students that these experiential charter schools have. Colorado charter schools have an average of 6.7 percent special-education students, according to the Colorado Department of Education. And there are even fewer at Core Knowledge schools, which account for about a third of the charter schools in the state. While many other charter schools don't classify themselves as Core Knowledge, they offer the same curriculum, a back-to-basics teaching model that emphasizes traditional subjects such as reading, writing, math, science and history. The Core Knowledge charter schools that provided information to the Colorado Department of Education for its 1999 charter schools evaluation had an average of 4.6 percent special-education students.

Youth and Family Academy in Pueblo, which is similar to the experiential schools in that it individualizes instruction for every child, has the highest number of special-ed students for a charter school in Colorado, excluding the Magnet School of the Deaf, which is made up entirely of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. About 32 percent of its 102 students between the seventh and tenth grades receive special education. "It was 27 percent last January, when I started here," says principal Herb Tedford. "But I'm more fortunate than some other charter schools, because the staff really understands these kids. I taught special education for ten years before I became principal here. We only have one special-education teacher, but we also have an English teacher who has a master's degree in special education and a math teacher who came here from a residential treatment facility, where 90 percent of kids were special education.

"The biggest challenge we face is not having enough staff resources. Day in, day out, trying to individualize education plans and make time to spend with the kids is hard when there's so much paperwork. We try to keep the special-education kids in the regular classroom most of the day and bring the special-education teacher in to help all students. The special-education teacher gives the other teachers tips on how to handle kids with ADD and other disorders. We battle that on a daily basis."

Griffin, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, knows of three more experiential charter schools that may open next year: one in Fort Collins, one in Salida, and one in Silt.

Calla Lapham Pott, a founding parent at PIONEER School in Fort Collins, says the school is prepared for special-education students. Because the charter school was just approved by the Poudre School District in December, she doesn't know yet how many students will enroll next fall -- they're planning for between 120 and 200 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders -- but she expects to see a lot of special-education students. "We knew well ahead of time that we'd be attracting students with special needs, because all of the founding parents had kids who'd gone to an experiential-learning elementary school in the Poudre School District," she says.

Informational meetings that have been held already show that both parents of kids with special needs and parents of gifted children are interested. The Poudre School District might not provide any special-education services for PIONEER, so the school is planning to hire its teachers and to contract out for special-ed services, as well as supplies, facilities and administrative needs, from its own budget, which will be anywhere between $700,000 and $1.1 million. More than half of the contracted-services budget will be earmarked for special education, Pott says.

Nevertheless, she warns, "We don't want to be labeled as a school for special education students. We're going to be a school for everyone."

The charter for the Arkansas River Community School in Salida was turned down by the local school board, so its founders are now appealing to the Colorado Board of Education. Wendy Trafford-McKenna, one of the parents who's hoping the school will be approved in time to open next fall, says she expects only a handful of special-ed students to enroll. But she adds that parents haven't examined the issue closely and won't until the school is approved.

For the last three years, Lauren Rhim and a colleague at the University of Maryland have been studying how charter schools in fifteen states deliver special education. After the initial study, titled Project SEARCH (Special Education As Requirements in Charter Schools), was completed, seven of those states, including Colorado, were researched further. (An educational consultant in Minnesota and a project director at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education were also involved.)

In an introduction to the study, Rhim explained that a lot of research has been conducted about the charter-school movement, but that "little is known about if and how states, local districts and individual charter schools are working together to meet the needs of children with disabilities enrolled in charter schools. A question increasingly arising in charter-school circles and individual districts is how to balance the autonomous and individualized nature of charter schools with the highly regulated nature of special education designed to ensure that all public schools are accessible to all students."

Rhim found that only nine of the fifteen states "require all charter applicants to articulate how they propose to support children with disabilities. However, the requested level of specificity varies considerably. The application requirements range from a simple mandatory assurance to comply with 'federal statutes' a specific outline of how the proposed charter will meet the needs of all exceptional children."

Colorado is one of the states that require charter schools to address special education, but only in general terms. Other than a section on finance, the only language in Colorado's Charter School Act that mentions special education is "a general assurance that charter schools won't discriminate against students with disabilities," Rhim says. How the state's individual school districts address special education in charter schools varies, however; some districts require charter schools to provide specific details on how they plan to accommodate special education students, while others only require charter schools not to discriminate.

But Rhim also says that "in terms of the evolution of special education in charter schools, Colorado is at the front of the pack. Because of how long charter schools have been around in Colorado, there's a strong support system for them. School districts and charter schools in Colorado have figured out how they need to work together on special education. Colorado is not in the same kind of turmoil that a lot of other states are in."

Although Rhim couldn't identify the schools she studied in Colorado because she had promised them anonymity, she did say that she had visited eleven charter schools in seven school districts.

Rhim, who discussed her local findings at a workshop in Denver on February 9, also says that Colorado is the only state in her study that offers insurance to help charter schools pay for special-education services for students with severe mental or physical disabilities. Although most of the state's charter schools rarely get such students, many still pay their local school districts a certain amount of money per student in the event that a child with severe needs does come along. "If you have several kids with mild learning disabilities, it costs the charter school more than they're getting out of the insurance policy, but if you enroll one child with multiple handicaps who needs aides and special transportation, suddenly it's looking really good," says Rhim.

Three of the seven school districts that Rhim studied in Colorado offer some form of insurance to their charter schools. (Only four charter schools in Colorado assume total responsibility for special-education services, according to the Colorado Department of Education.)

Jeffco's Spinks says Colorado school districts offer one of three kinds of insurance: Charter schools can pay their districts for hiring their special-education teachers, as they do in Cherry Creek; they can let the district keep the special-education dollars that come from the state in return for the district paying the teachers, as they do in Douglas County; or they can pay the district to provide additional services if the need arises but hire their own teachers out of their own budget, as they do in Denver and Jefferson County.

Griffin says the insurance cost per student ranges from $200 to $500, depending on the plan; charter schools pay those amounts for every student they enroll, not just for special-education students. Jefferson County Public Schools keeps $226 per student from CDL for its special-education insurance.

"For a lot of charter schools, the arrangement is beneficial. However, there are two caveats," he says. "One is the quality of service: If you buy into the district's special-education pool and get assigned a teacher who doesn't agree with your philosophy, or you don't get a quality teacher, then it's not such a good deal. The other caveat is the raw dollar amount involved. There's an impression [among charter schools] that it's a money grab for the school districts -- that the fees charged are not indicative of the real cost of services."

In addition to Rhim's study, two other national studies have been conducted recently on special education in charter schools. Tom Fiore, senior study director at Westat, a Maryland-based research corporation, was hired by the U.S. Department of Education to look at how charter schools nationwide are serving kids with special needs. Fiore visited 32 schools in fifteen states. "I found that a lot of charter schools are attracting more special-education kids than they thought and that a lot of charter schools weren't even planning to attract any kids with special needs. A lot of schools had to really modify what they were doing to accommodate special-education students," Fiore says.

Myrrha Pammer conducted a similar study as a researcher for the University of South Florida. She looked at charter schools in Colorado, California, Michigan, Florida and Arizona. "This study addressed one overarching research question: Why are parents of kids with disabilities choosing charter schools?" Pammer says. "The number-one reason was that they were really dissatisfied with the regular public schools their kids were attending."

Right now, there are no charter schools in Colorado specifically for kids with learning disabilities. The only one in the state that targets a specific special-education population is Jeffco's Magnet School of the Deaf. One reason for this is that charter schools take a tremendous amount of time and effort to start, and parents of special-needs kids are often so overwhelmed with their children's daily needs -- occupational and speech therapy for some, doctors' appointments for others -- that they simply don't have the time.

Another reason is that a precedent hasn't yet been set in Colorado. "It's funny how different states take on certain types of charter schools," Griffin says. "Minnesota has twice the number of drop-out-prevention charter schools in their inner cities than they do in their suburbs, whereas our first charter schools were all suburban, more mainstream schools like Core Knowledge. Had we had a few schools serving kids with disabilities early on, more probably would have followed. But it will happen here eventually, as it's happened in other states."

In Florida, 25 percent of all kids in charter schools receive special education, according to Rhim. "What that statistic doesn't say, however, is that Florida's charter-school law encourages charter schools to serve kids with disabilities. There's a charter school there just for autistic kids," she says.

Parents in Colorado have tried to start charter schools for special-needs kids in the past and failed. Last year, Spinks says, a parent in Jefferson County wanted to start a charter school for kids with learning disabilities, but the school board turned down the application because the parent didn't have a location and couldn't offer details about exactly what the school would offer. Six years ago, another parent in Jeffco wanted to form a charter school in which special-education students would be mainstreamed with their non-special-education peers, but the school district denied her application; she appealed to the state board of education, which also turned her down.

Colorado's Charter School Act does not contain any language that specifically forbids or encourages charter schools to target students with disabilities. But there is nothing illegal about opening such a school, as long as it doesn't exclude kids who don't have learning disabilities. If more parents try to start charter schools for special-education students, however, it will likely rekindle the debate over segregation. For years, public schools have been moving away from pulling special-ed students out of normal classrooms. Although it still happens at a lot of schools for a portion of the day, most schools are trying to include special-ed students in the regular classroom as much as possible.

And there could be other challenges. The term "learning disabilities" can mean a lot of things; the state's special-education statutes refer to them as "perceptual or communicative disabilities," which in turn are defined as "a basic disorder in the psychological processes affecting language and/or learning, [which] may manifest itself in an impaired ability to listen, think, attend, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations."

What the term does not include, according to the state statutes, are "students who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, or limited intellectual capacity or significant identifiable emotional disability, or who are of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage."

The broadness of the definition could make funding such a school difficult, Griffin says. It took Jefferson County Public Schools a few years to figure out how much to charge other school districts for the kids outside of Jeffco who wanted to attend the Magnet School of the Deaf, which opened in 1997.

"Jefferson County had to pay for their kids, but they didn't want to get stuck footing the bill for kids from Boulder who were going to the school. They needed to set up a formula for out-of-district costs, and it took legislation to solve that. That's been done now, but all of those kids have a similar disability, and services for them are relatively uniform," Griffin says. "Another type of school for special-needs kids would have a wider range of disabilities and a wider range of costs. The state would have to figure out a funding formula for that."

For now, life goes on at the Center for Discovery Learning.

Fourteen students between the ages of twelve and eighteen are lounging on a mismatched assortment of ragged but cushy couches and chairs. Posters of Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and Walter Payton decorate the walls. The seven boys and seven girls lay their backpacks and books on coffee tables; their laps are their desks. It's 8:30 a.m. in Lisa Pasquale's research and literature section of "Astronomy and Astrology: What's in the Stars?"

Another twenty students are across the hall learning the math and critical thinking part of the course; after two hours, the two groups will switch places. Pasquale, whose students address her by her first name, tells them that two assignments are due soon: First they'll have to make up their own constellation and write a myth about it; then they'll have to write a biography about a historical astronomer. The students receive the news with groans and questions.

"Can we just make up a myth right out of our head?" one girl asks. Pasquale explains that, yes, that's the idea. Most students begin to warm to the notion of letting their imaginations guide them, but some look a little worried about the actual task of putting their ideas on paper. That's where Susie Broderick comes in. Although she's a regular-education teacher, her background in special education enables her to go into classes and help kids who need extra attention.

She's in Pasquale's class to help students write their papers and at the same time prepare them for the writing portion of the CSAP, which students across Colorado are taking this month.

"You're all on a continuum of writers. Do you perceive yourself as writers? Some of you may say, 'I'm not even close. I hate to write.' That's one continuum. Some of you may keep journals or like to write e-mail in your free time. That's the other continuum," Broderick says, pausing to hand out papers that outline the six traits of effective writing. "This is stuff you already do in class, so it's nothing new, but you'll be evaluated according to these traits in future tests."

And while the students ponder how they'll score on the CSAP, the staff at CDL wonders what their future will hold.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >