CityViews: Kids With Special Needs Would Lose if City Wins Charter-School Closure

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Courtesy Layta Downs

Layta with her sons Marquise and Kanye.

As a New Yorker, I know the value of a good education, and as a mom, it’s my job is to make sure my kids have access to one. But finding a school that works for my family hasn’t always been easy because both of my sons were diagnosed with learning disabilities. New York public schools are not equipped to meet the unique needs of disabled children, a problem that is even worse in New York’s communities of color. That’s why I was relieved to learn that the city was stalled in its efforts to shut down the middle school at Opportunity Charter School (OCS), a school specifically designed to help children with disabilities and a learning difficulties.

This year, the Department of Education (DOE) granted a three-year renewal for OCS’s high school, but ordered the middle school to close down. The DOE claims our test scores aren’t high enough, but these results don’t tell the whole story, especially in a school like ours that disproportionately serves students with special needs. Fortunately, the judge overseeing our appeal recognized the challenges of serving children with special needs and the merits of our case, so he extended the restraining order, which will allow the school to remain open for at least another year.

OCS is a charter unlike most others; it welcomes all students, including many with learning difficulties. In fact, more than 50 percent of OCS students have moderate to severe learning disabilities, 98 percent are either black or Hispanic, and nearly nine in ten students are eligible for meal assistance. But this is about more than just the numbers; there’s a reason why so many parents of disabled children send their kids here.

From day one at OCS, I knew we’d landed at the right place. The school works hard to foster a culture of understanding and inclusivity, and it translates into a healthy, supportive learning environment that runs seamlessly from sixth to twelfth grade. My youngest, a 7th grader, tells me, when someone in class doesn’t understand something, they all work together until everyone is on the same page and ready to move forward. In another instance, when my younger son was hospitalized for two months, not only did OCS teachers come after hours to help him keep up, but they also kept an extra eye out for my older son, a high school student, to check in and help him cope.

In threatening to close down OCS’s middle school and thrust students back into the public school system, the DOE is breaking up a school, compromising students’ futures and disrupting entire families. By viewing test scores in isolation every year, rather than over time, the Department is missing the larger picture. In fact, the graduation rate at OCS is only one percent lower than the citywide average, and students enrolled at OCS since middle school have matched or outperformed the graduation rates of similar students in the city for three out of the last four graduation cohorts.

In light of this, I fear OCS is being unfairly used as a proxy to fight a larger war on charter schools. The Mayor has long opposed charters, claiming they’re too exclusive. But if he shuts down OCS, he will be making an example of the wrong charter school and sending mixed messages to the rest.

OCS parents will continue with our discrimination suit against the city in order to keep our school open. We will take this fight as far as we can and use every tool we have to ensure that our children have a school where they feel comfortable to grow in a learning environment best suited to their needs.

Opportunity Charter School isn’t a just regular middle school or a high school; it is a singular institution that brings a unique, tailored education to many students that wouldn’t get one elsewhere. And in a city where many disabled and special needs students slip through the cracks, schools like OCS are more important than ever. We urge the DOE to think of our kids as the individuals they are, and not as a set of test scores.

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Layta Downs is a Bronx mother who has sued the Department of Education over the proposed closure of Opportunity Charter School.

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