Despite a 2009 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report that said early intervention education for children with autism could save Virginia more than $151.6 million and a paucity of evidence as to the effect of charter schools for these children in later grades, city school officials recently proposed to partner with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to create a charter high school for students in Richmond who present with autism and other disabilities.
RPS administrators said the proposed charter high school would be "a-school-within-a-school," have only 12 students and be housed at George Wythe High School. VDOE proposes to spend $300,000 per year for the next 5 years ($1.5 million) and would add 12 students each year.
The proposal, if you can even call it that, consists of two pages of confusing gibberish and is emblematic of much of what ails public education in the city. To wit, not one member of the board was informed of this proposal prior to the meeting.
RPS School Board chairman, Jeffrey M. Bourne (3rd District), said the proposed initiative took board members "by surprise." He said that at a minimum, the board should have been informed about it prior to the regular board meeting and that "as professionals," the RPS administrators should have presented the board with a briefing paper detailing current "best practices" for children with autism and other disabilities and a timeline of prior RPS school board actions.
Kristen Larson (4th District), arguably the one board member with the most knowledge and experience dealing with creating a charter school (she served as the spokesman for the Patrick Henry Charter School), said she is concerned the proposed RPS/VDOE school might prove to be too ambitious to be achieved by the September 2013 school year.
Agreeing with Bourne, Larson further noted that the School Board has an "unmet need" for additional information about the proposal: "I am interested in finding out more details about this initiative and working to expand the number of RPS programs that support our special education population, "I'm concerned that this program was presented as a charter school."
She explained that under Virginia charter school law, charter schools must be open to all children, conduct a lottery if applicants exceed space, and families must apply to attend the school.
"I worry that if this is not done right, it could become a mess that would do more harm than good and could undermine the very students it proposes to help," she said noting that the "application process is not a selective one, however the plan presented to the board included a very specific profile of students who would attend this school.
"We need to look at other school districts that have created special education charters and learn from their experiences if this is the route the board decides to take."
As presented, Bourne and Larson both acknowledged the proposal could be troubling to the parents of the more than 4,000 other children with disabilities since it would restricted to only 12 students. Bourne noted that the report was a professionally embarrassing example of "poorly written bureaucratese."
Other parents and community members said that the proposal clearly demonstrates why Victoria Oakley, the district's chief academic officer, should not be in charge of teaching any children how to write clearly, much less creating a charter school for children with disabilities.
Rather than address Richmond's 27 percent graduation rate of children with disabilities or the dismal 60 percent graduation rate for the rest of the district, the proposal concerns itself with what it euphemistically terms "the less than ideal post-school employment rates of students with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, [and] multiple disabilities."
Some background: A Richmond Times-Dispatch story on January 24, 2006, quoted me saying that although I did not support bringing a proposed Norfolk charter school to Richmond, that I proposed we work with our counterparts in the surrounding counties to explore creating "two regional charters, one for students with autism and one specializing in vocational and technical education, along the lines of the governor's schools."
In a July 1, 2007 story, the RT-D quoted superintendents from the Richmond metropolitan region boasting about their "close communications and cooperation" with one another and specifically noted the regional success of the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, a school that draws students from Richmond, Petersburg and the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, King and Queen, New Kent, Powhatan and Prince George.
That same story also noted that the metro-area superintendents were studying the creation of a collaborative program for students with autism. Former Hanover County School Superintendent Stewart Roberson, said "the idea is still in early research phases but could develop into anything from enhanced training for staff to sharing facilities for students."
School systems are political subdivisions, however, and any push toward a regional school system would be left to future generations, Hanover's Roberson said.
"I truly believe there's a healthy level right now, but future opportunities to cooperate regionally are limited only by the imagination."
Nothing more was ever heard about this effort.
On August 5, 2009, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the Virginia General Assembly's watchdog group, released a report that addressed the epidemic of autism. Not surprisingly, the report (click here to read it) said that Virginia does a poor job of providing services for people with autism.
Nathalie Molliet-Ribet, leader of the JLARC report, said that whereas multiple studies have established the need to have early intervention in treating children with autism, JLARC found that children in Virginia are often diagnosed well after age 3.
Nationally, studies have demonstrated that 90 percent of children improved due to intensive interventions, and half reached normal or near-normal functioning, Molliet-Ribet said. The intensity level should be 20 to 25 hours a week for two to three years, she said, but children with autism typically receive three or fewer hours per week.
Significantly, the JLARC study further calculated that early intervention efforts could save the state money because it spends (2009) about $20,000 for each of Virginia's 7,580 ($151.6 million) autistic special education students.
Del. Shannon R. Valentine, D-Lynchburg, who sponsored the resolution that led to the JLARC study, said that the number of children with autism has reached "epidemic" proportions. Citing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), she said that in 2009 one in 150 children was autistic and the rate among boys was one out of 94.
The most recent CDC data shows that autism currently effects one in 88 children and that the rate among boys is one out of 54.
No one knows why.
To be sure, no one knows why VDOE and RPS officials would choose to ignore a plethora of local, state and national data supporting early intervention and instead decide to dedicate $1.5 million to create a charter high school for children with autism and multiple cognitive disabilities that would primarily concern itself with improving post-high school employment.
And, certainly no one on the Board could know how the proposed charter school for high school students would work or how it might achieve its goals regarding post-high school employment.
The only clear message in the proposal is that Richmond would be glad to spend $300K per year of state money.