Boston: Renaissance Charter School

Boston's Renaissance Charter School initially foundered when it apparently attempted to discourage the enrollment of disabled children (although the school's Edison Project sponsor has always insisted that these efforts violated its policies). This year Renaissance reformed its special education program in an attempt to bring it more in line with Edison's own stated ideals and the standards of special educators generally. But the school's experience should serve as a lesson to other charters, for whom discouraging the enrollment of difficult-to-educate children may seem a tempting shortcut to success. The following report, written before this year's reforms, describes the Renaissance experience.

Opened in 1995, the Renaissance school enrolls 1,000 inner-city students, and is the showcase of the Edison Project, a for-profit schools company. Created as a partnership between Edison and a group of Boston civic leaders, the school occupies a nineteenth-century office tower in downtown Boston that its founders renovated with the help of a $12 million loan from the quasi-public Massachusetts Land Bank. Beyond its obligation to meet the general goals spelled out in its charter, the school is completely autonomous. The Edison Project runs Boston Renaissance according to the blueprint it uses in all 25 of its for-profit schools across the country: each family gets its own Macintosh computer; the school day is longer by an hour than the average public school's day; and the school year is longer by a month than in regular Boston public schools.

But Boston Renaissance's vaunted success may initially have been built in part on an unsavory strategy: in early 1997, Amy Babin, former coordinator of special education, and other teachers at Boston Renaissance concluded that the school was discouraging families with learning-disabled children from enrolling and was pushing already-enrolled disabled children out of the school. In the days before the school first opened, the principal told Babin that "if we had students who needed resource room-type support, we should counsel the parents that this was not a good match." While it is against federal law to discourage a child's enrollment because of a disability or to avoid providing needed services to an enrolled disabled child, Babin says, "We met with a lot of parents [of disabled children]. The point of the meeting was to discourage them from sending their children."

Officials at Edison Project headquarters in New York City unequivocally deny the charge that disabled children were "counseled out." "It is simply not true," says John Chubb, an Edison vice president and its director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. "It's bad business for us to do anything that suggests we are shortchanging kids."

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Yet there is troubling evidence. For instance, Boston Renaissance suspended Kylee Jones, a kindergartner, 20 times, for a total of 49 days. Eventually, his parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), contending that the school had neglected to accommodate Kylee's mild learning disability. In September 1997, OCR ruled that Boston Renaissance failed to meet its obligation to provide adequate and appropriate services to Kylee.

The evidence suggesting an explicit policy against children with disabilities comes from Kelle Jones (Kylee's mother), Amy Babin, and several teachers who would not allow their names to be used. (Babin testified about the policy before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature.) But the stories of other families whose children eventually did leave the school suggest that even if exclusion wasn't a deliberate policy, neglect produced the same result. For instance, after her 12-year-old son's mood plummeted, Monica Landrum discovered that the school administration had neglected to tell any of his teachers that he was dyslexic. Arlene Ramos, whose son kept getting into trouble at Renaissance, says of the school, "If your child is a special needs child or doesn't fit in as a perfect student, his life is impossible there."

Whatever the school's policy, there was initially a stark contrast between the percentage of severely learning-disabled students in regular Boston public schools and the percentage at Boston Renaissance. According to figures recently released by the Massachusetts Department of Education, while 20 percent of students at all Boston public schools last year were special education students, only 12 percent of the students at Boston Renaissance were. When degrees of severity are considered, the discrepancy was much greater. Whereas 10 percent of the students in Boston's regular public schools (and half of Boston's special ed students) had disabilities falling within Massachusetts's most severe disability classification (those serious enough to require intensive remediation), fewer than 1 percent of Boston Renaissance students fell into this category.

Boston Renaissance officials explicitly and emphatically deny that they engaged in any practices that might result in a student population that's easier to teach than the one delivered by the state-mandated random admissions lottery. They claim, for example, that their success at including all students in regular classrooms explains the reduced number of students in resource rooms, and that the real scandal is the tendency of Boston's regular schools to isolate special ed students in separate classes. But the troubled early experience of Renaissance suggests just one of the corner-cutting strategies charter school administrators might be tempted to use.

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