CharterFolk Contributor Lydia Hoffman – What Would it Take for More Charter Schools to Improve the Educational Experiences of Diverse Learners?

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Lydia Hoffman, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund.

I provide Lydia’s bio below.

Lydia is a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF), a national nonprofit that identifies the country’s best public charter schools, funds their expansion, and helps to increase their impact. She leads CSGF’s work with public charter school networks in Colorado, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Over the last decade, she has supported the CSGF Tennessee Fund and CSGF’s strategy and knowledge management initiatives. Prior to joining CSGF, Lydia worked as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly (CQ) in Washington, DC, where she covered federal education policy. While at CQ, Lydia published more than 150 articles on early childhood, K-12, and higher education policy. Lydia has a BA in US history from Dartmouth College and received an MBA from the Yale School of Management. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and two sons.

What Would it Take for More Charter Schools to Improve the Educational Experiences of Diverse Learners?

When I read Stanford’s latest CREDO study, “As a Matter of Fact: The National Charter School Study III 2023,” earlier this summer, I felt deep respect for a sector that has collectively improved over time and in which students are growing at a significantly faster rate than the majority of students in their states. But I couldn’t shake the glaring footnote: Students with disabilities simply did not learn as much in charter schools as they would have had they attended traditional public schools. This unavoidable fact has been consistent across each of CREDO’s three national charter studies and shows up in CREDO’s deeper regional analyses as well.

When I read the report, though, I couldn’t help but think about Sherrill Stratford, a Nashville mom of a boy with autism. By the time Sherrill’s son was ready for kindergarten, she was skeptical of schools doing right by her son. She enrolled him in Rocketship United Academy, a Nashville charter school, and was initially resistant to teachers’ efforts to share tools to support her son at home. During winter break of his kindergarten year, Sherrill began to try what the teachers had shared. His emotional outbursts went from 25-30 minutes long to 2-3 minutes. Rocketship and Sherrill established a goal for her son to grow from the 2nd percentile on the NWEA-MAP test to the 37th percentile by the end of the year. He finished the year at the 56th percentile, above the national average. “In my journey, it was getting over my pride,” Sherrill said. “I finally received it as equipping me to influence his education. When my kids saw me working with teachers instead of being mad, they became invested too.”

I think of Sherrill and what would have happened had her son not enrolled at a school with an “integrated special education” approach, where adults take a holistic and full team approach to students with individualized education plans (IEPs), and at a school where leadership espoused how deep parent partnership is integral to students’ success. Sherrill’s son is now thriving in middle school at another Nashville charter.   

As I reflect on Sherrill’s story and other bright spots where schools and families have worked together to truly meet students’ needs and help them thrive, I wonder if others are also asking: What would it take for more charter schools to prioritize improving the educational experiences of diverse learners?

But first, I want to share a few caveats. I am NOT an expert in special education and educating diverse learners. I have worked at the Charter School Growth Fund, a national nonprofit that identifies, funds, and scales the impact of the nation’s best charter schools, for more than a decade. And so, I’ve had the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools, learn from teachers and leaders, and most importantly, talk with parents of diverse learners about how schools are meeting their needs. And while I care deeply about and have a keen interest in the success of diverse learners, I lack deep expertise on this topic. 

I also know how hard it is to interpret student outcome data for students with disabilities. Many schools we support declassify students with disabilities once they no longer need an IEP – meaning those students will not show up when looking at a special education student group in outcome data (and declassification data isn’t often reported and doesn’t typically show up in accountability frameworks). And many states administer alternative assessments for students with high needs, making it very hard to look solely at traditional proficiency data.

And still. I know that the charter community, which I have seen rise to the occasion again and again (the headline from CREDO’s report proves that charter schools are truly getting better over time), can do better.

I am still working through “how” myself as a funder, and CSGF has been on our own journey as well. Over the past 10 years, we’ve evolved our evaluation lens to look at a school or network individually against their most proximate peer group, with a strong emphasis on student growth. CSGF now proactively seeks to support schools that create better options for students whose needs aren’t being met, like Arizona Autism Charter Schools and New York Center for Autism Charter School, and we support many schools where ~25% or more of students have IEPs, like Voz Collegiate Preparatory Charter School in New Mexico, DREAM charter school in New York City, Libertas School of Memphis, Collegiate Academies in New Orleans, and Washington Latin Charter School in D.C. In schools that truly sing for students with a diverse set of needs, leaders have created an adult culture that embraces each child’s growth as their professional responsibility and have cultivated truly socially inclusive programs. At Rocketship, every student has personal academic growth goals, regardless of abilities. The reality is all students benefit from environments more tailored to individual student needs. 

As we think about a collective path forward towards improving outcomes for students with disabilities, I know we won’t have a single roadmap. But we do have clear bright spots that can help pave the way — and clear barriers we could work on addressing. And I do believe this:  the clearest answer will come if we listen to and center on students and families.

A group of parents, autism service providers, and educators in an Atlanta suburb came together to found Tapestry Public Charter School, an inclusion school that supports autistic students alongside their neurotypical peers. And many of the other bright spots in the CSGF portfolio, like Libertas School of Memphis, a school that was a restart of a chronically underperforming neighborhood school in Memphis, are some of the most community-rooted schools we support, where families have true voice and leadership within the schools. Libertas offers a personalized and multi-sensory Montessori method with a continuum of inclusive special education and clinical therapy services; Libertas special education students have grown faster than typical peers for eight straight years on the nationally normed NWEA MAP test.

So, what is standing in our way? I see three primary barriers to tackling this challenge:

1. The silo that is special education

Special education is one of the most siloed areas in schools, and when I talk to service providers that work across schools, this is the #1 thing they wish they could change. Special education departments often end up overly focused on compliance, lack professional development opportunities, and miss opportunities to truly integrate practices that would support ALL students to thrive in core instruction.

The prevalence of the silo effect is why I’m excited to see more former charter executive directors launching organizations focused on this, like Kristin McGraner, who founded STEM Prep in Nashville, and has recently launched Thrive Therapies Group, and the All Means All cohort, led by Lindsay Kruse and Ben Marcovitz, which is a 15-month leadership development cohort experience that challenges leadership teams to ask themselves, “If we were the best school with the best 30 educators who ever lived, what would we do?” and “When a student is struggling, change the learning environment, not the student.”[1]

2. State funding formulas and school evaluation structures

In 2018, 24% of students at Libertas School of Memphis had IEPs, and 10% of students had severe disabilities. And yet the school received the exact same amount of per-pupil funding as any other school in the district (and would have if the school had educated 90% of students with disabilities). In 2022, Tennessee overhauled its funding formula, and now funding flows directly based on student need, with the biggest “weights” in the formula for students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students. As we continue to recover from the pandemic, other states should take a page from Tennessee’s book and make the necessary adjustments for their students. We also see many state evaluation systems — and also charter authorizer and philanthropic evaluations — that focus disproportionately on absolute performance while ignoring student growth and student group outcomes, which disincentivizes schools to serve — and truly educate — diverse learners.

3. Limited resources for collaboration across schools

In many places, even cities with a robust charter environment, there is little collaboration happening across schools focused on improving education for diverse learners. And often we aren’t leveraging talent, like school psychologists and specialized staff, across multiple charter schools. There’s an opportunity in many places for charters to adopt a collaborative services structure across schools to share resources and also to specialize where needed.

My dream is that in places like Nashville, where more than 1 in 5 public school students attend a charter school and where we are starting to see a stronger ecosystem of supports, like the Diverse Learners’ Cooperative (founded by Brooke Allen, a founding special education teacher at Valor Collegiate Academies) and Thrive Therapies Group, we can collectively work towards narrowing disproportionalities between students with disabilities and general education students by prioritizing deep leader development, embracing an “all means all” mentality, surfacing existing bright spots, and recognizing where current gaps exist in programming or schools meeting specific needs.

Sherrill was so deeply impacted by her experience as a parent at Rocketship that she joined their team working with families on enrollment, engagement, and building parent power. Often, parents at other schools would reach out to her for help navigating school choice and IEP processes for their children, and Sherrill is still helping Nashville families advocate on behalf of their children’s needs and determine best fit options for their children.

I have deep belief in the 200+ charter networks CSGF supports. Together, let’s start to buck the persistent trend for students with disabilities in charters so that when CREDO runs another national charter study, we see real progress in the data. And to do so, I hope we don’t reinvent the wheel, but rather take the time to learn from bright spots that already exist. And I hope that more schools take a holistic and inclusive approach like that of Rocketship Tennessee, so that Sherill and other parents have more choice. Most of all, I hope we center the voices of students and families — their feedback is what truly matters.

[1] CSGF has made strategic investments in the Thrive Therapies Group, the Diverse Learners Cooperative, and the All Means All cohort to help them serve more students and schools.