At Alliance College-Ready Public Schools (Alliance) in Los Angeles, when we say that all scholars can learn and achieve, we mean all. That’s why, in 2018, we launched a multi-year organization-wide effort to ensure that every scholar, especially our English learners and scholars with disabilities, have equitable access to rigorous grade-level materials, social-emotional support, and mental health resources needed to meet their academic and career potential.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools pivoted to distance learning, our network faced a stark choice of action or inaction regarding special support services, since special education policies were not explicitly mandated by the district or state. [pullquote]We could either choose to put all scholar needs first or disregard the needs of scholars with disabilities and English learners[/pullquote] who represent 12% and 15% of Alliance’s 13,000 scholars, respectively.
In alignment with the Alliance mission of educational equity, we chose action.
First, the Alliance special education team mobilized to provide instructional and academic resources regarding scheduling, accommodation tools in a virtual classroom, and co-planning facilitation guidelines between general education and special education teachers. Immediately after, the team crafted legal guidance with action items for our schools to follow to ensure that Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) compliance efforts were efficient, concise, and in the best interest of scholars and families.
As part of the action plan, schools communicated with all 1,547 families with scholars receiving special support services to explain the shifts in support during distance learning. Next, we assessed each individual scholar's needs and addressed their educational services through personalized prior written notices and virtual IEP meetings. These steps were of paramount importance, as they closely aligned with the network’s agreed-upon distance learning principles:
I am proud to say that by April 13—less than two weeks after the launch of distance learning—Alliance was able to offer 100% of related services such as occupational therapy, counseling, speech, and vision, through virtual means. We are also continuing to offer our academic and instructional support through our special education resource specialists and instructional aides, utilizing such tools as online office hours, small group instruction and one-on-one tutoring sessions. Our ability to offer any of the above-mentioned services must be credited to the Alliance operations and technology teams for providing over 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to families in need for use with Alliance-supplied Chromebooks.
[pullquote]We aren’t doing it perfectly and definitely have room for improvement, but we’re choosing action because this is what scholars need and deserve.[/pullquote] Yes, Alliance benefits from the flexibility of a public charter school and a large support staff, but if your district or charter network is not meeting the needs of all scholars during distance learning, ask them why. Alliance has high expectations for all scholars, and we know our families have high expectations of us. You have a right and responsibility to advocate for your child to ensure that the SB 117 funding provided to each pupil is being utilized in their best interest.
Collaboration will be key to ensuring that students across California—not just Alliance scholars—are able to succeed during this unprecedented period. Given the importance of partnership, Alliance is participating in a public webinar co-hosted by several California Assemblymembers, Senators, and the California Charter Schools Association on May 19 to share our best practices in serving scholars with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my hope that our findings will spark action. Our scholars’ futures depend on it
Courtney Vickers is the Director of Special Education at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, where she leads a team of SPED managers at the home office and supports Alliance's 28 middle and high schools. Prior to her work at Alliance, she was the Director of Special Education at a charter school network based in Nashville, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. Courtney started her passion-fueled career working with scholars and families nearly 20 years ago, when she co-founded Youth Empowerment through Arts and Humanities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable youth arts organization in Nashville, Tennessee.
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