Our students are dealing with unprecedented trauma and instability as we near a second year of the pandemic. The students most impacted are those considered “high needs” by the state, because they are economically disadvantaged, English learners, and/or students with disabilities. 

As a result of economic insecurity, families are worried, anxious and depressed. As a result of seeing their children struggle to learn during the pandemic, families are frustrated. It only makes sense, then, that they would be attracted to the promises made by Innovators Charter School (ICS) for an “innovative” education designed to prepare students for the “21st century workforce,” driving students toward “economic mobility.” 

These claims to prepare students for college and the workforce amount to false advertising at its worst. This marketing scheme targets vulnerable families, while only guaranteeing prosperity for the operators of the charter school, who will extract millions of dollars from public schools in New Bedford for their private venture.

ICS plans to recruit a population that is made up of 80% “high-needs” students. However, as with most charter schools, the ICS has no solid plan or intention to meet the complex needs of the students it claims to serve, particularly students with disabilities.

In its application to the Department of Education, ICS touts its inclusion model and its partnership with Landmark College to serve students with disabilities as if it is innovation. Landmark is a private college in Putney, Vt.

First, there is nothing innovative about inclusion whereby students with disabilities learn alongside students without disabilities; it’s the law and a well-established practice in New Bedford and Fall River public schools. 

Second, providing remote classes to students with disabilities through Landmark College is problematic. As we saw during the pandemic, learning remotely is not the best way for most students to gain social and academic skills, and this is especially true for students with disabilities. 

Other issues with the application include no plan to provide smaller classrooms for students who require specialized instruction and no plan to employ specialists like speech and occupational therapists. 

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ICS will need to contract out services through Landmark and beyond, resulting in possible delays and barriers for students to access special education. This means that ICS is likely to either deny students services or return students to their home school districts.

Lastly, for a charter that promises economic mobility, its plan to prepare high-needs students for college and the workforce is weak and inadequate. Unlike our public schools, ICS is not currently planning on hiring job coaches, transition specialists or other providers to offer specific on-the-ground support to students with disabilities trying to access college classes. Both New Bedford and Fall River have far more extensive resources and expertise to help high-needs students transition to college and careers. For students with severe disabilities, New Bedford and Fall River have access to the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative through which they can take classes at Bristol Community College, do job internships, join college clubs and participate in campus recreational and social events.

Yes, in many ways districts like New Bedford and Fall River have struggled to provide all students with the kinds of comprehensive services that they need, primarily due to the underfunding of both public schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The federal government’s failure to meet its promised special education funding obligation has stressed many state and local budgets, making it incredibly difficult for schools to meet student needs. 

Despite tight budgets and tall demands, however, public school districts do employ teams of special education teachers, mental health professionals, vocational specialists and other wraparound support coordinators. To the extent that these supports are not reaching all students or are not effective, parents and educators can and should advocate for better at the local, state, and federal level. In fact, now is the time to advocate for additional support services as districts spend federal relief dollars.

Rather than funneling resources and funds from our public schools to a new charter school with a grossly inadequate plan to meet the needs of students with disabilities, we should advocate for fully funded, well-resourced public schools that are able to meet the needs of all students.

(Cynthia Roy is co-chair of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools and its steering committee and a member of the executive committee for the Mass. Teachers Association, Region E. She wrote this piece with assistance from members of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools Steering Committee.)

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