June 12 — 9:52 pm, 2012

District, Mastery reach agreement on serving disabled students at Clymer Elementary

clymer Photo: Benjamin Herold

Updated, 7:55 p.m.


by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

The School District of Philadelphia and its largest charter school turnaround operator have agreed on the outlines of a deal that will prevent the relocation of 12 severely disabled children from one of the city’s Renaissance charters.

The deal avoids a potentially traumatic move for students in two Multiple Disabilities Support (MDS) classrooms at Mastery Charter Clymer Elementary in North Philadelphia. It also allays, at least for now, the concerns of disabilities rights advocates that the District had established a precedent for exempting charters from their responsibility to educate some of the city’s most vulnerable – and expensive to serve – students.

“I think we came up with a really positive solution,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, deputy chief innovation officer at Mastery Charter Schools

“I think this is a good sign of the District and charters partnering.”

Listen to Benjamin Herold’s report for NewsWorks Tonight

Under the terms of the deal, Mastery will continue to operate the two specialized classrooms at Clymer, which the charter management organization inherited after taking over the school last year as part of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative. The District will subsidize some of the cost of serving the students, though the exact amount and funding mechanism have yet to be agreed upon.

Before this week’s deal was reached, the MDS program at Mastery-Clymer was slated to be uprooted and moved into a District-run school on July 1 – the result of a controversial provision inserted into the school’s charter after District leaders overruled their own top academic and special education staff.

Word of the new plan came as a relief for parent Sonia Otero, whose 7-year-old daughter, Ulishka Jiminez, is intellectually and developmentally disabled and suffers from visual, orthopedic, and speech impairments. 

Mastery-Clymer “is a very good school for us to stay in," said Otero.

“It has a lot of benefits for my daughter, and for other kids as well.”

District and Mastery officials said they have been seeking a solution on the future of Clymer’s hugely expensive MDS program since January. After advocates complained twice about the issue publicly before the School Reform Commission last month and the Notebook/NewsWorks began asking questions last week, a deal came swiftly.

The arrangement is the best outcome for the students and families at Mastery-Clymer, said Jennifer Lowman, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center.

But it should also put city education leaders on notice, she said.

“I hope that this is a wake up call that families and communities are not going to stand by and watch the District treat a group of kids as pawns in their efforts to make a deal with a private operator,” said Lowman.

‘The economics … don’t work’ 

Standing in the concrete playground outside Mastery-Clymer Monday afternoon, Otero held up her cellphone, eager to take a picture of a simple sight she wasn’t sure she’d ever see.

Ulishka was about to go down the slide.

“She’s doing many things that the doctors said she would never be able to achieve,” said Otero, beaming.

“I feel like an excellent mother because my child can do so many things.”

Like all children placed into Multiple Disabilities Support classrooms, Ulishka has profound special needs. But the support and attention she has received at Mastery-Clymer this year has helped her blossom, said her mother.

“I’ve seen a lot of progress,” said Otero. “I’m very happy.”

In Philadelphia’s highly politicized education reform landscape, some have questioned whether charters, which now serve around 25 percent of Philadelphia’s public school students, are willing or able to serve those with special needs. Just last month, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos himself voiced that skepticism.

“It’s a criticism [charters] must address,” said Ramos at the May 31 SRC meeting. 

“They are, as a sector, not carrying their share of the public responsibility.”

But Mastery – the city’s largest charter operator with a total of 10 schools, including five current Renaissance charters – is proud of its special education programming, said Collins-Shapiro. 

Eighteen percent of Mastery’s students have special needs, she said, compared to 14 percent in the District as a whole. The organization  now runs 10 regional “low-incidence” classrooms – for students with multiple disabilities, autism, and life skills support needs – serving 95 students across three schools.

“We are trying to put ourselves in a position to be a national model for charter schools serving special education kids,” said Collins-Shapiro.

By most accounts, Mastery has done a good job running the MDS program at Clymer this year.

But the cost of educating a child with multiple disabilities can run as high as $50,000 per year or more – two or three times as much as the flat per-pupil allocation for special education students provided by the state. 

Because each Renaissance charter functions as its own independent school district with its own budget, the cost of maintaining an expensive regional MDS program is prohibitive at a small school like Clymer, said officials from both the District and Mastery.

Most of the 12 MDS students at Clymer are not from the immediate neighborhood.  Within the District, the cost of such a regional special education center is spread out more widely and not borne entirely by the school in which it is located.

This year, Mastery raised $300,000 in private donations to keep the two classrooms running at Clymer. 

But over time, said Collins-Shapiro, “the economics of having a small school support regional special education programs don’t work.”

District initially overruled its own experts

Since starting to convert its low-performing schools to charters in 2010, the District has made it clear that outside managers are expected to maintain all special education programs in any school they seek to turn around.

The Request for Proposals issued by the District last year states:

Several of the Renaissance Schools may operate Special Education Placement Programs that provide special education supports to student that require autistic support (AS), life skills support (LSS), and multiple disability support (MDS) programs….Renaissance School Turnaround Teams must continue to provide all necessary services for these student populations.

Aware that Clymer housed both MDS and LSS classrooms, Mastery made an aggressive push to manage the school and was the overwhelming choice after a rigorous community process.

But shortly after being awarded the school, Mastery officials began voicing concerns to the District.

“Mastery raised the point very early on that these programs in this small a school were going to be a financial challenge for them,” said Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives.

Darden sympathized. But over the summer of 2011, the two sides failed to negotiate a solution.

As the school year drew near, a split emerged inside District headquarters over how the situation should be resolved.

Seeking to accommodate Mastery and help facilitate the overall school turnaround effort at Clymer, Darden’s office proposed that the District remove the MDS program from Clymer and open a new program in a District-run school nearby.

“We want these Renaissance charters to be successful,” he said.

“Our special ed team is fully equipped to run these types of programs.”

But the District’s top academic and special education staff, including current Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, who was then assistant superintendent of schools, balked. 

“They were not in total agreement that this class should be moved,” acknowledged Darden.

With time running out, said Darden, then-Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II settled the dispute.

Nunery overrode the concerns of the District’s academic experts and authorized the inclusion of a two-sentence paragraph in the charter giving Clymer to Mastery: 

Commencing on July 1, 2012, and for the remainder of the Term, the Charter School shall not be required to maintain the MDS Program nor to provide the two (2) Multi-Disabilities Support classes at the Charter School.

At the time, said Darden, “we thought it was the best solution.”

But as Mastery began seeing promising results with the students in Clymer’s MDS classroom, the organization’s own special education staff began pushing its leadership to find a solution that would maintain continuity for the children in the program.

“You just feel like it’s inherently wrong to take away something that is working,” said Siobhan Leavy-Buttil, Mastery’s director of special education.

And when the special provision in the Mastery-Clymer charter became public this spring, disabilities rights advocates howled with outrage.

The agreement wasn’t just bad for kids, said the Education Law Center’s Lowman. It also established a dangerous precedent.

“It [sent] a message to the community and to these families [of children with special needs] that even though charter schools are the wave of the future in how we reform public education, it’s not going to help your kids.”

Lessons learned

Darden downplayed such concerns and described Mastery-Clymer as an “anomaly.”

There are 16 other “low-incidence” programs spread across the District’s 17 Renaissance charters, he stressed. None have been moved, and the District has no intention of subsidizing any of those programs.

Moving forward, said Darden, all Renaissance charters will be required to maintain “low-incidence” classrooms in turnaround schools.

“The District is definitely committed to that,” he said.

Officials from both the District and Mastery said that because the Renaissance initiative is still relatively new, thorny issues still inevitably arise. 

As a case in point, the District also agreed just last month to heavily subsidize the facilities costs of Universal Companies in two other Renaissance charters with relatively small student populations.

“We clearly have learned some lessons along the way,” said Darden. “We wish with hindsight we would have known about these challenges as we were selecting schools.”

They are proving to be expensive lessons to learn, however. 

At Audenried High and Vare Middle schools, the District is taking on $1.8 million in costs this year and an estimated $1.3 million next year to subsidize Universal. 

The exact amount of the subsidy to be provided to Mastery has yet to be agreed upon.

Despite the District’s budget woes, Darden defended the solution at Mastery-Clymer as “the right investment to make in the best interest of kids.”

The most important thing, stressed all involved, is that the 12 extraordinarily special, and extraordinarily needy, children in Mastery-Clymer’s MDS classrooms, will get a solution that best meets their needs.

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