Achievement First Inc. pledged to do better with special education students but didn’t

Last week, Achievement First Inc. the large charter school chain with schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island was hit with a lawsuit about its failure to fulfill its legal obligation to special education students at its Crown Heights, New York Charter School.

It was only two years ago that a Hartford Courant headline read, “Achievement First Pledges To Do Better With Disabled Students.” The paper added, “Civil Rights Complaint Said Too Often Students With Disabilities Suspended, Given Demerits.”

The complaint against Achievement First Hartford was filed by Greater Hartford Legal Aid against Achievement First’s Connecticut operation.  The lawsuit alleged;

“Achievement First’s failure to provide accommodations, modifications, and specialized instruction per 504 plans or IEPs, and AF’s pervasive discriminatory discipline practices violated violate federal and state law.”

The specific allegations included Achievement First’s violation of Title II of the American with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

Following a federal investigation, Achievement First, Inc. signed a “Voluntary Resolution Agreement” on May 30, 2013 in which it promised to do a better job providing students with services and improving training for administrators, teachers and staff to ensure with special education requirements were treated appropriately.

Among the long list of action items in the Resolution Agreement was the overhaul of Achievement First Inc.’s “School Culture Manual” so that parents not only understood their fundamental rights but were properly informed on how to access services for their children.

But despite the promises to do better, Achievement First is back in the news with yet another failure to provide legally required special education services.

On November 5, 2015 the New York Times reported, Lawsuit Accuses Brooklyn Charter School of Failing to Provide Special Education Services

As fellow bloggers Diane Ravitch explained in her follow up blog;

A lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of five students at Achievement First Crown Heights, claiming that the charter school did not provide mandated services “and were punished for behavior that arose from their disabilities.”

The lawsuit charged that the students did not get physical therapy and other services for weeks, and that a student with autism “was disciplined for not looking in the direction a teacher instructed or for hiding under his desk.”

Achievement First is a “no-excuses” charter chain with schools in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Its backers include some of the wealthiest supporters of privatization.

The families are also suing the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Education Department for permitting Achievement First to avoid its legal responsibilities to the children.

Pedido Street School, another leading education blog added,

The suit, filed on behalf of five students at Achievement First Crown Heights, described a “systemic failure to provide them a free appropriate public education, in violation of their rights.”

The systemic failure to provide services is especially troubling considering the Hartford Courant’s June 2013 story entitled, Achievement First Pledges To Do Better With Disabled Students.

The Hartford Courant reported;

A new federal civil rights agreement aims to get better and more appropriate services for children with disabilities who have been continually suspended or excluded from class at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School for disciplinary reasons.

Maria Morelli-Wolfe, a lawyer with Greater Hartford Legal Aid Inc., which last year filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of children with disabilities at the public charter school, said that very often those students spend too many hours out of the classroom — suspended in school or out of school — because of behaviors they weren’t necessarily able to control.

“Many, many days, they couldn’t catch a break, particularly those kids with disabilities that result in behavioral issues,” said Morelli-Wolfe. “They would get caught up in the cycle of the rigid discipline policies of Achievement First and they just couldn’t break free of them, sometimes for very small behaviors, even like tapping pencils. … Some of the cases were just heartbreaking.”

[…]

As part of its agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, Achievement First has promised to train staff not only in the federal education requirements for disabled students, but in the characteristics of disabilities such as autism, mood disorders, attention deficit disorder, and childhood trauma. It has also agreed to develop a centralized data system to track removal of disabled students from classrooms.

[…]

The agreement, which was released Monday, comes less than a week after the release of a report from the state Department of Education that showed that Achievement First charter schools have among the highest rates of suspension or expulsion in the state for all students, not just those with disabilities.

The report said that 49.4 percent of the students at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School had received at least one in-school or out-of-school suspension or expulsion — the highest percentage noted in the state report.

Johanna Rodriguez, whose eighth-grade son was included in the civil rights complaint, said her son was suspended and at home for most of last year, while this year she said he was suspended in school most of the time in a room set aside for students who are removed from class because of a behavior issue.

For lesser offenses, he was given “re-orientation” where he could remain in class, but had to wear a white shirt and other students were not allowed to talk to him.

Rodriguez said she got called “just about every day” and told that her son was being removed from class because he had been fidgeting or not promptly carrying out directions or talking to himself or humming in class.

She said her son has a variety of disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other problem behaviors. She said she warned Achievement First before her son enrolled in the sixth grade. “I told them he’s a handful,” Rodriguez said. She said she asked “Are you sure you can handle him?”

Over the past two years, she said, the academy had promised special accommodations for her son in various ways but didn’t follow through.

According to the complaint filed by the Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Achievement First has a “no excuses” philosophy that says, “We must refuse to make excuses for our students because of their prior education, their family situation, their community, or other potential excuses.”

The complaint said that “based on our experiences with Achievement First, learning, emotional or behavioral disabilities are often viewed as just another ‘potential excuse.'”

Achievement First Inc., like most charter schools, consistently fail to enroll their fair share of students who require special education services.

The following chart using data from 2012-2013 provides just a glimpse of Achievement First’s unwillingness or inability to accept and service special needs students in Connecticut.  In addition, when it comes to the special education students that Achievement First Inc. and other charter schools do accept, they are tend to be special education students who require fewer services.

 

SCHOOL DISTRICT/SCHOOL % STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Hartford Public Schools   14.2%
Achievement First Hartford  7.8%
Bridgeport Public Schools 12.7%
Achievement First Bridgeport 8.0%
New Haven Public Schools 11.1%
Achievement First – Elm City 6.5%
Achievement First – Amistad 5.0%

NOTE:  Considering THAT charter schools get reimbursed for any and all special education expenses, in addition to their per pupil grant, there is absolutely no excuse for charter schools to refuse to enroll students with special needs or push out those who require additional services.

The harsh reality is that while Achievement First Inc. and other charter schools like to apply a “no excuses” mantra for students, the record of lawsuits and media reports make it clear that when it comes to their own policies and actions these charter schools like to “talk the talk” but utterly fail to “walk the walk” when it comes to being real public schools.