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Florida Charter Schools Slow to Admit Disabled

Tres Whitlock
Tres Whitlock

Dec.15, 2011 | WMFE - With traditional public schools, where you live often determines where you go to school. Charter schools were supposed to give people another choice. But that choice isn't always an option for some students with disabilities. That's the finding of an investigation by the StateImpact Florida project and the Miami Herald. It shows that most charter schools in Florida fail to serve children with severe disabilities.

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Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, high school for Tres Whitlock isn't just about what happens in the classroom, It's also about girls.


Tres has cerebral palsy. He can't walk... or speak. But like any embarrassed teenager, he laughs.


Tres communicates by typing on a computer that generates a voice to tell us his future career. 


“A game programmer.” He says.


Right now, he's creating an iPod app so kids with disabilities can decorate and race virtual wheelchairs.


Tres is a computer whiz so when a charter school opened up near Tampa with an emphasis on computers, Tres had to apply.


But when his family went for a tour of Pivot Charter School ... Tres says the principal told him … “you can't come here.”

He says the principal told them it’s because Tres can’t go to the bathroom by himself.


Tonya Whitlock is Tres' mom. She says that's not a good reason.

 "The medications Tres is on, he doesn't go to the bathroom very often, but if he has to go, there needs to be someone there and that was the only request that we did ask for.” Whitlock said.


They've been fighting to get him into Pivot Charter School for the past five months.

 “Its like we're begging people to just please let him go to your school." Whitlock said.


The school's principal is Carmela David. She wouldn't talk about Tres specifically or agree to be recorded.


She says her school does serve some students with disabilities.


But records show that no students with Tres' level of special needs go to Pivot. And that's typical for most Florida charter schools.


StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald analyzed enrollment data on kids with severe disabilities, like Tres. Kids with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and autism.


Our investigation found that more than 85 percent of Florida charter schools don't have a single student with a severe disability. That's compared to half of traditional public schools.


Take Jacksonville, Florida. There are more than a thousand students in that district with severe disabilities. One attends a charter school. Other counties don't have any such students.


"If we had similar patterns of exclusion of kids by gender or race, I think there would be much more outrage then there is."


That's Thomas Hehir. Back in the Clinton administration, he was the top official in charge of special education. And he helped re-write federal disability law.


Hehir says he's seen the same pattern in San Diego, Boston, New Orleans and Nationwide. Hehir says charter schools are not serving the neediest students.  

“I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they do cost more money to educate." Hehir said.


For instance, in Florida's largest school district, Miami Dade, state funding only covers about 60% the cost of educating a severely disabled student. The district has to make up the difference. This year that’s $27 million dollars.


State and federal laws say no school, traditional or charter, is allowed to turn away kids because it's too expensive to educate them.


But there's a loophole: The law also says students with severe disabilities can only go to schools that provide the services they need and our investigation found that most Florida charter schools do not offer those services.


Adam Miller oversees charter schools at the Florida Department of Education. He says the traditional public school can share expensive special needs resources, like special ed teachers, across many schools.


But each charter school operates on its own.


"It would be challenging for a single school to set up a program for a single student.” Miller said. “ Which I think is why you see for the most part that doesn't happen."


It didn’t happen for Belkys Vigil and her son David in Miami.


He’s seven and has autism.


David won't eat anything but pizza. And it has to be Papa John's pizza. He can tell the difference.

He's super affectionate but he can be territorial.


Vigil says she tried to enroll David in several Miami charter schools because students are supposed to get one-on-one attention. But she says they all told her the same thing.


"Oh we don't take him. Oh, we don't have the facilities for a special needs child.' Nobody. The tears that I would cry because of the rejection, it was constant."


Charter school advocates say give us time.


Lynn Norman Tech is spokesperson for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.


She says many traditional public schools didn't serve kids with special needs until federal laws forced them to in the 1970's.


"As we move into the next phase in charter schools, I imagine that the children with disabilities will be next. Unfortunately, just like they were an after-thought in the traditional public schools not necessarily an after-thought, but it came with time. I think that will happen in time. Especially now that the movement is maturing."


She says specialized charter schools are starting to pop up throughout the state designed specifically for kids with severe disabilities.



In Orange County, which includes Orlando, there’s a network of such charter schools and more than twice as many disabled students attend Orange County charter schools than any other county.


But in Miami-Dade, there are only two of those specialized charter schools for kids with autism. 


And if you factor them out, there is only one student with a severe disability enrolled in the districts 86 other charter schools.


Vigil says those specialty charter schools are in high demand and she couldn’t get in.


Now David is going to a private school. He gets a state-funded McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities. It’s another option for parents and kids not happy with their traditional public school.


But his parents still pay seven thousands of dollars a year to put David in a private school.


And remember Tres, the teenager with cerebral palsy?

 He's now going to a traditional public school that has a program for kids with autism.


And his mom says he doesn't even have autism.


"We had to compromise.” She said. “We had to settle for an environment that we knew wasn't absolutely the best for him, because we didn't have any other choices."


Tres says he desperately wants to be with the regular kids.


"I have very few friends.” He said. “I want to prove to them that I can be in normal classes."


And the girl Tres has a crush on, she's is one of those "normal classes". But he's off in a different part of the school so he's never had the chance to tell her how he feels.


StateImpact Florida reporter John O'Connor ... and Miami Herald writers Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiassen contributed to this report.

This report is part of a six month long charter school investigation by Miami Herald called "Cashing in on Kids."




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