Last week, the families of 40 Minneapolis students with significant special needs received an unwelcome phone call. The promise that their children would be able to return to their North Minneapolis classrooms when school starts in just over a month would be broken. The children, who have disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome that make transitions particularly difficult, will not be welcomed back to the one-year-old charter Minnesota School of Science, which took over the district’s Cityview Elementary School in August 2011.
In 2010, when No Child Left Behind mandated that the Minneapolis school district take drastic action to improve Cityview’s test scores, the district school board voted to usher Cityview out and turn over the space to the charter Minnesota School of Science the following year.
The plan called for special education classrooms to stay in the building. Their occupants would remain Minneapolis Public School students in name. A one-year contract obligated MSS to provide opportunities for the high-needs students to mingle with mainstream peers.
By this spring, the district was aware of a number of issues with the relationship between the two schools and the service provided by MSS. The district assured parent advocates that a refined agreement was coming. But on July 9, the charter’s board gave notice that they would no longer provide mainstreaming services to MPS.
Last week, the district began working its way through a long list of phone numbers, informing parents that their mostly North Minneapolis students would have to cross the river this fall to attend Pillsbury or Sheridan elementary schools in Northeast.
The situation calls into question the charter school’s commitment and ability to work with all types of students, as well as the level of forethought the district put into its plans to work with Minnesota School of Science. A No Child Left Behind-inspired experiment may have left vulnerable North Minneapolis special education students behind.
A first of its kind district-charter relationship
Just two months ago, the building occupied by Minnesota School of Science and Cityview Middle School housed four federal setting 3 elementary-level special education classrooms. The federal label means that the students’ needs are so significant that at least 60 percent of their day is spent separated from mainstream peers. Two of the classrooms served students with autism; two served students with developmental cognitive disorders like Down syndrome.
Until last year, the children’s classrooms were part of Cityview elementary school. Under No Child Left Behind, students’ consistently low test scores gave the district three options: shut the school down, fire and rehire the entire staff, or provide an alternative option for the students to receive high-quality education.
Meanwhile, MPS was developing a new strategy for dealing with its underperforming schools and auspicious achievement gap: it opened an Office of New Schools that would build a portfolio of innovative partner schools. The office supported the development of the site-governed Pierre Bottineau French Immersion school, set to open this fall. It also began authorizing charter schools including Minnesota School of Science.
The Minneapolis school board voted to authorize MSS in July 2010. In November of that year, the board held a public hearing to discuss a recommendation that Cityview close. A number of parents objected to the closing, including parents of special education students.
On December 7, 2010, in a 4 to 3 vote, Minneapolis’s board decided to close Cityview Elementary at the end of the school year and phase out Cityview Middle School within three years. Minnesota School of Science, part of a chain of successful charters managed by the national not-for-profit Concept Schools, would move into the space. Cityview became the sixth district school to close in North Minneapolis in three years. At that point, it was unclear what would happen to the seven autism and developmental cognitive disorders classrooms in the building.
It wasn’t until March 2011 that an agreement was signed with MSS that MPS students would stay in the building and be mainstreamed in the charter’s classrooms. The arrangement was the first of its kind in the country. The decision meant the district could avoid disrupting the education of high needs students and avoid finding space in already crowded schools for more classrooms.
MSS school board members say they were reluctant to agree to mainstream the students. “We almost chose not to come to this building because of it,” said board member Gene Scapanski. The charter’s goal is for 90 percent of its academically struggling, mostly low-income and non-white students to earn proficient scores on state tests within three years. “To bring children to that level of growth and then to have in addition that other challenge, it seemed like more than we could handle. We didn’t know if we could be successful.”
“We very reluctantly said we would take it, but we’d take it for one year,” Scapanski said.
The district would come to regret agreeing to such a short commitment.
Signs of trouble
In spring, the district’s special education advisory committee co-chair, Kelley Leaf heard rumors that some parents were unhappy with the services their students were receiving at MSS. The committee is made up mostly of parents of students with disabilities who attend schools in the district. Leaf said special education director Ann Casey assured members that a new agreement was in the works.
But two months later, the charter informed the district that they would not re-sign a contract to mainstream MPS students in the fall.
According to MSS board members, the decision was a long time coming. Scapanski and fellow board member Ozer Asdemir said they heard repeated concerns from the school’s former director Hasan Kose that teachers were struggling to provide intense college preparatory instruction to MSS general education students while simultaneously attending to the needs of MPS special education students.
The board members said the school incurred unexpected expenses because of the arrangement. The district reimbursed the charter $42,000 for hours MSS teachers worked with MPS students and $38,000 to fund a special education liaison between the district and the charter. The charter was not compensated for two additional classroom teachers they hired, costing $77,000. Charter board members said they hired the teachers to reduce the number of students in two classes, which had grown to over 30 students with the addition of MPS special ed kids.
At meetings in May and June the district agreed to address some of those complaints. Among other things, the district agreed to hire additional classroom assistants for MSS classes placed with more than three special education students.
In exchange, the district asked that MSS allow MPS students to wear the charter’s uniform. They also requested that the school hire a single special education liaison. Last year, although the district paid $38,000 for liaison services, the charter divided responsibilities among multiple individuals.
District officials said they were not aware of any complaints from teachers or parents.
MPS presented MSS with three options: mainstream the students for two more years while working towards a long-term agreement, mainstream students for one more year before students relocate, or cut off mainstreaming before the school year starts. The charter had until July 6 to make up their mind.
District officials said that since the MSS school board appeared interested in continuing the arrangement, MPS did not make any plans to move families in the coming year. Associate Superintendent Mark Bonine said that it is unlikely that parents knew the arrangement had potential to expire over the summer.
But expire it did.
“This was not part of our mission. We reluctantly feel that we have to end it,” Scapanski told the Daily Planet. “To do otherwise would make it extremely difficult for faculty to achieve the goals that they’ve set for themselves.”
As a public school, MSS is required to serve any students that want to attend, and the school does enroll a number of students with disabilities. But board members argue that the students in question are MPS students, not MSS students. As such, MSS is not obligated to provide services beyond what the contract demanded.
The agreement was separate from the charter authorizer agreement, which expires in 2014, and separate from the building lease agreement, which expired June 30, 2012, and was already renewed.
“We understand that we need more than one year to implement a program. A one year agreement does not meet that need,” Office of New Schools director Sara Paul said. “The biggest lesson learned is that the one year agreement did not serve our interest for a sustainable program.”
“If we weren’t surprised by this we would’ve moved much quicker to make the change to find a place for these students,” said associate superintendant Mark Bonine.
MSS board members said it was not a surprise to them. “I think with our original concerns that we had in taking on the additional students, it wasn’t a huge surprise in the end when our teachers said to us, this demands many more resources than what we feel like we have,” Scapanski said.
Moving across the river
Federal law requires that K-12 special education students have opportunities to interact with mainstream peers. The district considered staying in the MSS building and busing students to another school for parts of the day, but since every student’s Individual Education Plan requires a different level of mainstreaming, transportation would have been too complex. Plus, special education teachers would lose opportunities to collaborate with mainstream teachers.
Instead, one autism classroom will move to Pillsbury, and the other autism classroom and two developmental cognitive disorders classrooms will move to Sheridan. The sixth graders in the developmental cognitive disorders program will move to Northeast middle school. More than 12 teachers, specialists and education assistants will move with them.
Two middle school special education classrooms will stay at Cityview, but that will change as the district phases out the site’s middle school program. The district has not determined where those classrooms will relocate.
“They walked away.”
According to MPS board member Carla Bates, besides being hugely disruptive to families, the unexpected transition disrupts the district’s efforts to derail a long trend of instability in special education programs.
Although Bates voted against closing Cityview because of her concerns about the special education students in the building, she voted in favor of the one-year contract with MSS. “I take personal responsibility for the fact that the contract was only a year long versus the lease on the building or the performance contract,” she said.
“You can’t get achievement for some at the expense of others,” Bates said. “It’s just not how we can do it in public schools. It’s not it.”
As to whether or not this will affect MPS’s decision to renew an authorizing agreement with MSS in 2014, Bates said, “They walked away. They walked away from our students. Of course I’ll remember.”