What to Ask a Charter School Before Enrolling Your Special Needs Child

6 Questions to Find Out How a Charter School Will Meet Special Education Needs

Every parent wants the best education they can get for their child. If you have a child with special needs, you already know the importance of getting your child an education that can be tailored to their specific needs. Charter Schools often have fewer bureaucratic regulations than traditional public schools, which may allow a charter school to provide an even higher level of customized education to their students.

It's important to keep in mind that each charter school is very unique. Parents can't assume that a charter school will always be better at meeting a student's individual needs than a traditional public school. Instead, parents need to consider their child's needs and compare that to the specific charter school the family is considering.

The following is 6 questions to help you evaluate if a charter school will be the right fit for your child with special needs, usually having an​ IEP or 504 plan. These are additional to the considerations that apply to all students considering a charter school.

What Makes This Charter School Unique?

Mother kissing child in school uniform.
Wander Women Collective/Getty Images

By nature, charter schools are all very individual and unique. Charter schools are created by groups of parents, teachers or community members who wish to create a school around a central idea that is different from what the local school district currently offers.

These central ideas can range from providing a school designed with the needs of an underserved population in mind to centering around a particular teaching philosophy.

The core idea that inspired the formation of the charter school will affect almost every aspect of how charter school operates. You need to make sure that your child will benefit from the focus of the charter school you are considering.

 For example, a school that offers greater flexibility to students so they may explore their own interests could prove difficult for a child with issues relating to focusing and executive functioning. Conversely, a charter high school that places a high priority on small classes with close student-teacher relationships may benefit a teen experiencing depression.​

The bottom line for parents?  Be sure that the founding principals of the school are compatible with your child's needs.

Did the School Get Its Charter From the Local School District or the State?

As a type of public school, charter schools are required to comply with state and federal disability and education laws. Charter Schools receive their authorization through state or local agencies. It is important for families with special needs children to understand who the charter school is authorized through.

If the charter school is authorized directly through the state, then the charter school is on it's own to meet the specific needs of a child, as determined by federal and state disability and education laws. This charter school will have more freedom to decide how to meet a child's needs, but may not have as many specialists, such as speech and language pathologists or occupational therapists, on staff to work with a child who qualifies for Special Education Services.

If a charter is authorized through the school district, the school will be able to draw on the resources of the local school district to meet a child's needs. Some school districts will have full-time specialists who divide their time between schools. In some cases, school districts will prefer to have special needs students attend a particular school where the district has placed specific resources relating to particular needs at. This could make a charter school less attractive, since the school district would choose to meet your child's needs only at another school site.

The bottom line for parents? Be sure you know who the charter school is authorized through, and how that affects special education services offered by the charter school.

Does This Charter School Have Certified Teachers on Staff?

The majority of traditional public schools require teachers to be certified, a process that includes going through an accredited teacher college program combined with an extensive student teaching mentorship before being eligible to be hired as a teacher. These teaching programs include training on how to include special needs students in the classroom. Certified teachers have received training on understanding IEP's and 504 plans, and should be familiar with the writing and parent-staff meeting process involved in writing these plans.

Some states have an exception that allows charter schools to hire non-certified teachers. You can do a search on your local state's education department website to find out if charter school teachers are required to be certified. You can also ask the staff at the charter school when you visit.

While certification is proof that a teacher received professional teacher training that included some information on special needs in the classroom, it is possible for a non-certified teacher to gain this knowledge in another way. If the teachers are not required to be certified, ask what training the teachers have received to learn about special needs students in the classroom.

The bottom line for parents? Make sure that the charter school teachers have the knowledge to understand IEP and 504 plan processes, and know how to provide an inclusive classroom.

What Training in Special Needs Do the Staff Receive?

Your child will come into contact with a variety of staff people in any schools they attend. This could include classroom assistants, recess monitors, school office staff, and others. While not every child with special needs will require the entire school staff to understand the child's differences, you will want to know if the staff that your child will be in contact with have adequate knowledge to meet your child's needs.

The bottom line for parents? Check that the school staff is prepared to provide a positive learning environment for your child.

What Training Specific to the Charter School Do Teachers Receive?

Teachers and school staff often receive ongoing professional development. This is the training teachers receive during summer breaks or on teacher training days. Teachers benefit by staying up to date with latest methods in their fields.

New teaching methods are regularly developed, and classrooms are changing rapidly with the use of technology in schools. In addition, new and rigorous standards are being implemented nationwide. Even experienced teachers benefit from ongoing training. Classrooms are changing rapidly with the use of technology in schools. In addition, new and rigorous standards are being implemented nationwide. Even experienced teachers benefit from ongoing training.

Teacher trainings that are more specific to the goals of the charter school give teachers specific knowledge they can use to meet the goals explained in the charter. Knowing that teachers are receiving this training shows a commitment to meeting these goals using the most current strategies appropriate to their school.

The bottom line for parents? Check that the teachers have the support to provide the best methods for the charter school, rather than guessing at how to teach in a unique school environment.

Is the Charter School Campus Appropriate for My Child?

Many charter schools do not receive state or federal funding to cover a school building and it's maintenance. While all public schools, charters included, are supposed to meet the same accessibility and related building code requirements, the reality is that some charter schools open in buildings that may not meet typical traditional public school standards. 

This may be the result of limited funding that can be spent on the building, or it may be a deliberate choice as a different type of structure is more compatible with the mission of the charter school. It should be noted that some charters receive grants, fundraise or receive large donations to build a new campus to their design.

When you visit the campus, try to think of your child's needs for space, and how that will relate to their ability to succeed in school. For elementary age children be sure to check the playground. Is it safe and appropriate to your child's mobility? Will your child be able to navigate their way through the building in a way that is appropriate to their age and development? Does classroom furniture and layout lend to a learning experience appropriate for your child?

The bottom line for parents? Check to make certain that the campus is safe and appropriate for your child.

Making a School Choice

You may have noticed that these questions won't lead you to a straight yes or no answer. Instead, you need to decide if your child can be more successful in the charter school than in other school settings that are available. The knowledge you have as the parent of your child gives you a personalized insight that will help you to make the best choice for your child.

Continue Reading