Charter Schools

When a Charter School Learns From the District to Take on Special Needs

New York City has a great program for autism inclusion in its district schools. Thing was, there wasn’t one in Harlem.  The New York Charter School Incubator helped change that. While folks often look to charter schools to model practices for the district, we stole the district’s model and put in a charter. And it’s working.

How It Started

It all started over steak frites. A friend and longtime education reform advocate introduced me to a lawyer, who worked with special education students seeking private placements. They both saw an acute need for better services for atypical learners, particularly those on the autism spectrum in Harlem. These were smart, committed, empathetic and steely-eyed women. I knew this could happen, and our charter incubator program was all in. At first, we were told that there were not as many autistic elementary students in Harlem—which technically is true. But keep in mind, it takes roughly $10,000 per student to get the necessary psychological assessment to make the diagnosis. As one of the founders of the Harlem charter stated in a Daily News article:
While the average age for identifying cases of high-functioning and mild autism ranges from three to four in upper and middle class families, the diagnosis comes closer to age eight in low income areas. “Statistically, low income and minority kids are diagnosed later because it’s more of a subtle diagnosis,” said Soussloff. “But the later your child starts to get services, the worse off they are.”

Parents Needed This

Parents needed this, it matters for their children. And beyond just recruiting kids, the founders went to dozens of meetings to help underserved preschool parents understand some of the early signs of autism, and also to connect them with testing. They put together a great team—drawing from experts on autism—and developed a great plan. After one failed application, we were approved. The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem (NCSH) opened in 2012 and it is doing great. The educational experience was meticulously designed to support and integrate, but not overload students, and to have a variety of environments within each class to meet differing needs. It's beautiful to see. You see kids, positively relating with adults and each other, engaged in learning and having fun. In most cases you would be hard pressed to identify students on the spectrum. Staff are well-trained, supported, and invested in reaching every child.

What About the Scores

Testing can be very stressful but teachers and staff give students the opportunity to decompress and make it a fun. Here’s a video of staff getting kids ready for testing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y0pf6J_S84 And the kids killed the tests. Despite having a larger share of special education students, the school far exceeds the district, city and state in academics:
  • 79 percent of Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem’s third-graders are proficient in math, compared to 20 percent in the surrounding schools and 39 percent in New York City.
  • 53 percent of the school's third-graders are proficient in English language arts, compared to 16 percent in the surrounding schools and 30 percent in New York City.
  • The school's third-graders scored in the top 10 percent of charter schools city-wide.
And check out the kids in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQLhdLurvMU

What's It Take?

But none of this happened by accident. It took visionary and selfless founders, great staff and families. It also took a supportive New York City Department of Education (shocking in the current context, I know—who would think they would willingly help charters serving underserved kids?). So many things go wrong with schools, even with the best intentions, it’s great to see Neighborhood Charter of Harlem prospering, and thinking of replicating. (Ahem, funders…) And while the test scores are great, there is something much more important happening there. Equity talk is being walked, and children who often are left by the wayside are picked up and supported in finding their own stride. And this is something everyone should applaud and learn from, charter or district.
An original version of this post appeared on Great School Voices as Schools to Celebrate—Autism Inclusion in Harlem.
Dirk Tillotson
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...

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