Ideas in Action: New NJ Collaboration Links Schools in Shared Goal of Improving Outcomes for Students with Disabilities
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 | Safal Partners
Key Takeaway: Working together and increasing scale through collaboration, schools can build their capacity and improve systems to better serve students with disabilities and enhance options for their families.
“The way you support your students with special needs is really a window into how you’re serving all your students.”
Providing a full range of services and ensuring students with disabilities enjoy access to all school options can be tricky for charter schools. As Mark Rynone, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative (the Collaborative) says, “To ignore that group and not to improve your ability to serve them shows a district or a school doesn’t really care about their overall success.”
Collaboratives or cooperatives (co-ops), like the one in New Jersey, create shared infrastructure by working together and pooling resources. Collaboratives and co-ops provide key services and support to members that help them develop their own rigorous, inclusive, and fully-compliant special education programs.
As Susan Confrancisco from Marion P. Thomas Charter School explained, “Meeting with the Collaborative monthly was a lifeline. These monthly meetings allowed me to build a network of contacts and resources in Newark and within the greater Charter community.”
“As a small independent charter school, this assistance is invaluable. Our funding does not allow for hiring in-house capacity of this nature, and we are often tasked with doing more for less,” offered Tauheedah Baker from Paulo Freire Charter School.
The Collaborative has only been operating for two years but has quickly grown to help 25 member public schools—23 charter schools and two traditional public schools. The Collaborative was incubated by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS), as a follow-up to an earlier effort to improve access and services for students with disabilities in Newark, NJ. As NCSECS became more involved with the charter schools in New Jersey, they saw a need for more hands-on assistance.
“Local funders in Newark recognized that charter schools in the city continued to struggle to build their capacity to educate students with a diverse range of disabilities,” explains Lauren Morando Rhim, the Executive Director of NCSECS. “This evolved to a recognition that the sector would need ongoing support.”
The work of the Collaborative evolves with the needs of the member schools. According to Rhim, developing high-quality special education programs is a dynamic process.
“Staff turnover means that there is always new staff who require training,” said Rhim. “Rather than a one-time infusion of professional development and technical assistance, the sector requires a robust strategy to secure ongoing assistance to build capacity.”
According to Rynone, one of the biggest reasons people leave the special education profession is because of frustration and burnout, and not getting the appropriate services to do their job.
“We view what we are doing as a way to counteract that,” said Rynone. “We can train educators and give them the understanding to work with students with differing needs, so they will feel more comfortable and confident in their ability to serve all kids. That will, in turn, improve staff retention.”
The Collaborative aids schools on many levels. For schools that need help with the fundamentals of their special education programs, the Collaborative conducts in-depth reviews that explore the components of effective programs. Technical assistance is delivered in-person and through technology and an extensive library of resources and tools. The Collaborative also helps schools access funding and design effective financial and staffing solutions.
NCSECS is working in other communities that are interested in building their own collaboratives. There is an established need for charter schools to improve access and the effectiveness of services for students with disabilities. But each context is different, and collaboratives need to be designed to support schools in the local context.
Paul O’Neill, a senior advisor at NCSECS, explains the challenge: “Unless the schools care about special education, it won’t work because they won’t invest in or utilize the co-op or collaborative.”
O’Neill says collaboratives are more likely to be viable if the SEA or LEA hold charters accountable for complying with applicable rules and if the school operators trust the quality and effectiveness of the collaborative. And even if many schools buy-in to support a collaborative, they can still be hard to sustain in states with low levels of funding for special education or low levels of funding in general.
“Developing collaboratives requires a unique combination of a leader with not only technical skills but entrepreneurial vision and fundraising chops, but also enough schools prepared to make a financial investment to sustain the organization,” said Rhim. “We believe the approach can work in other settings. But securing buy-in from school leaders willing to invest time and money to support the entity is the foundation for success.”
Safal Takeaway: Improving a charter school’s ability to serve students with disabilities is a key aspect of strengthening the impact of charter schools and improving their overall quality. Collaboratives can support that work, but effective collaboration requires strong leadership and school buy-in.
To learn more about the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative, visit their website.