Thursday, June 26, 2008

Details.

The devil's in 'em. And I am not talking about this, though it is intriguing in its own right.

I'm talking about the Times-Picayune's front page this morning, in which Part 1 of a special education teacher's experiences at a local charter school appears. Tough assignment, indeed.

Go read that tough assignment link. Read it all, now. This blog ain't gonna be deleted or anything.

Special education is a thorny, complicated issue in American public education. Even in the best school districts, tensions flare over which children should be served and how -- and at what cost.

Orleans Parish schools have struggled for decades with such issues, more acute in high-poverty areas. But the city's newly minted charter schools face unique challenges. The schools lack the support of a central office, student records and institutional knowledge as well as the economies of scale that large districts enjoy.

Knowing that last highlighted fact puts the entire article and the struggles of the special ed teacher profiled within it into perspective. This is an assignment Sisyphus would walk away from. Forget trying to do the paperwork all by yourself and teach - better to continually push a boulder up a hill over and over again.

And here's where the print and the online versions of the story diverge as well.

Online version:

In Datchuk's previous job at a university-affiliated elementary school at Penn State University, special education classrooms sometimes had more staff than students. A team handled paperwork. He had heard criticisms of special education at charter schools. He figured that only meant this school needed him all the more.

Besides, the Recovery School District never responded to his application. But Kleban sent flowers when Datchuk's mother was badly injured in an accident.

After seeing them, he called Kleban. "OK, I'm going to come to your school," he said.

Print version:

In Datchuk's previous job at a university-affiliated elementary school at Penn State University, special education classrooms sometimes had more staff than students. A team handled paperwork. He had heard criticisms of special education at charter schools. He figured that only meant this school needed him all the more.

Besides, the Recovery School District never responded to his application. But Kleban sent flowers when Datchuk's mother was badly injured in an accident.

After seeing them, he called Kleban. "OK, I'm going to come to your school," he said. At 26, he was one of Kleban's oldest teaching recruits.

Anybody notice an important tidbit of information missing from Nola.com's version?

If that bit about Shawn Datchuk being one of the oldest teaching recruits at New Orleans College Prep is omitted, it erodes the import of his story even more. One of the oldest? At 26????? Able to be wooed to New Orleans with a bunch of flowers being sent to his mom? Coming here with the best of intentions? Read on:

In an ideal world, the 14-year-old student who couldn't spell a two-letter word would work with his own teacher or aide, all day, every day. Academically and socially, he cried out for help -- getting into fights weekly.

Datchuk knew he lived with a sister; his parents seemed absent. The Times-Picayune is withholding the boy's name because his parents couldn't be contacted.

But Datchuk already was spread too thin. He frantically worked to test students who arrived with little or no records. The school had started with only sixth-graders, but they ranged in age from 11 to 15 and seemed to read at anywhere from a prekindergarten to sixth-grade level.

Datchuk's personal and work lives began to merge. Most mornings, he arrived at the school by 6 a.m., the only time the copy machine was free. He lived close to the school and showed up there at all hours, often fueled by coffee. Many evenings, he wolfed down Mexican fast food.

Tapping strategies from graduate school, Datchuk devised a program for 53 students reading more than two years behind grade level.

Special education paperwork proved a quagmire of its own. Under state and federal law, all special education students might need to have evaluations every three years to determine their disability. Then, every year, they need an "individual education plan," or IEP, which spells out how the school works with the child.

The teachers at New Orleans College Prep could identify some students who needed special education services, but only one or two arrived with any paperwork. So Datchuk started calling their prior schools, which were spread across the state and country. He seldom heard back.

The students needed an evaluation to get an IEP, and the school needed IEPs to -- officially -- have special education students and get extra state money for them. But Datchuk couldn't do the evaluations: Only a team of an "education diagnostician" and a child psychologist had the credentials.

In a city where thousands of children need evaluations, such teams were in short supply.

"At some point, we ended up saying, 'We are just going to serve these kids and not get paid for it,' " Datchuk said.

I give this poor guy two years, tops. One year if he's very smart and wakes up to the difficulties inherent in trying to get a job at an accredited school when he's taught for a few years at an unaccredited school. Less than one from plain ol' burnout from trying to do himself what was done with teams of teachers and aides at Penn State.

Make no mistake. I want him to succeed. I'm glad Datchuk is being encouraged to teach more and push paper less, but I don't think the overall environment is going to allow him to continue that way. If the school vouchers are fully approved, there will be even less money going towards having more of those special education evaluation teams that are so sorely needed. It doesn't help when experienced teachers who could serve as mentors in these schools are staying away from the charters like they are incubators of some sort of plague - the pay and the benefits are nowhere near what they are in other places in this state or this country.

I'm interested to see the next installment of Sarah Carr's series....minus the idiot stats in a sidebar titled "Unmet Needs" in the print version. You try and make sense of these numbers. Go on. I double-dog dare ya:

Students with special needs Averages based on October 2007 counts

Recovery School District
10% of the students in the district-run schools had special needs
6% of students in Recovery School District charter schools

Orleans Parish Schools
7% of Orleans Parish school students were special needs
4% of Orleans Parish charter school students had special needs

If anybody's got any kind of clue about this, then tell me. Really, I'd like to know.

'Cause right now, it kind of reminds me of this:

3 comments:

C-SNAP said...

Something is rotten in the state of the union of the United States.

I can tell you that this crap, and poor special education overall, and poor general education even more broadly, is happening all over the country!

It's time for a national special needs union

Interrobang said...

The stats look pretty self-explanatory to me -- it looks as though special-needs students are seriously underrepresented in area charter schools; in other words, that the charter schools are drawing off proportionally more of the better students and leaving the publicly-funded schools to deal with proportionally more of the special-needs kids.

If the charter schools were treating special-needs students appropriately and not trying to force them out (as was documented in the article), there'd be parity between the numbers of special-needs attendees in both those sets of figures; or 8% in each in the Recovery School District, and 5.5% each in Orleans Parish.

(For what it's worth, this is not the first time at all I've heard of serious mismanagement and malfeasance at a charter school. There was a big scandal back in 2000 or so involving charter schools where the students themselves were expected to come to school early and stay late to perform custodial duties...)

Anonymous said...

New Orleans College Prep is the only local school, public, private, charter, non-charter...that gives a damn about educating kids who learn differently. I know this firsthand. Teachers like Shawn Datchuk are good for all kids, anywhere, we're so lucky to have him here and I hope he stays forever; New Orleans will be a lot better off with him educating our children. ...Sue