Harlem Charter School for Special Education Students Gets Second Chance

By Jeff Mays on February 23, 2012 7:15am 

HARLEM — Natasha Dyer's parents sent her to a parochial school in the Bronx because they wanted her to get a good education, but it didn't work out. Behavior problems and poor grades got her  kicked out.

"I wasn't doing so great. If you got it, that's it. If you didn't get it, that's it," said Dyer, now 18. "If you didn't understand, you felt like you didn't belong."

Her father heard about Opportunity Charter School in Harlem, a school that's unique because half its students have special education needs. The other half, though not classified as special education, often have emotional, speech, language or vision impairments or come in with major educational deficiencies.

Today, Dyre is a senior who has passed all of her Regents exams and is considering joing the Navy or attending art school after graduation in June.

It's successes like these that had the school's supporters, students and staff in shock when the Department of Education last year announced the school's charter was in jeopardy of not being renewed because of poor performance.

But, after giving so many students a second chance, the school got one itself.

After agreeing to meet certain measures, Opportunity's charter was renewed in December for two years.

If the neighborhood cheered when the DOE pulled the nearby Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts off of its closure list, they let out a collective sigh of relief when Opportunity was spared.

'Where are the kids that need special attention supposed to go?" asked Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens after a rally to save Wadleigh.

That's why he created Opportunity Charter School in 2004, said CEO and founder Leonard Goldberg.

The school keeps class sizes small and has a teacher and an assistant in every class. They use an inclusion model where students without special education designations learn in the same class as those with one.

"The impetus was to create a school where children who had failed because they weren't getting support would have a place to get that support," said Goldberg.

Students learn about ancient Egypt at a sixth grade class at Opportunity Charter School.
Students learn about ancient Egypt at a sixth grade class at Opportunity Charter School.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

Although Opportunity ranked near the bottom when it came to English and math proficiency, college readiness and graduation rate, the criteria should be different because the school handled children that were often coming from difficult situations, said Goldberg.

The performance of middle school students entering Opportunity Charter School was among the lowest for middle schools and the lowest of any charter middle school. At the same time, Opportunity's graduation rate for students with special educational needs is double that of the city's, school officials say.

"We wind up with a lot of students who were not succeeding at other charter schools," said Emily Samuels, Opportunity's director of development. 

"They somehow got in but didn't stay. The school was founded for those students."

In one class, teacher Sade Nobles talked about farming in ancient Egypt while learning specialist Glenn Roth roamed the classroom, giving students individual attention.

Dyre said it was that sort of attention that helped her do better at Opportunity than her old school.

"You have more than just a teacher here," she said. "You have counselors and other people to help you. If you can't find one person, there's 20 others."

One floor of the school has a wing of social workers providing everything from emotional to health counseling.

"We want to eliminate the barriers that keep kids from the classroom," said Michael Clements, director of a program run with the Children's Aid Society.  "Sometimes, students classified as general education get left behind because everyone assumes they are okay."

Principal Marya Baker says students come back to the school for help even after they graduate. One student came back for help in choosing community college classes. Another came back after her mother died for emotional support.

"More schools should think about education holistically and figure out a way to make it work for these students so we wouldn't have to take in all these kids that other schools don't want," said Baker.

"We shouldn't be here."

In order to stay open, Opportunity Charter School will have to receive a B on the student progress section of their Progress Reports in 2013 and 2014. The school will also have to increase its two and four year college placement rate to 50 percent from 22 percent.

The school must also maintain 70 percent of its teaching staff from year to year. The school was investigated in 2010 for allegations of teacher abuse of unruly students but the issue has since been resolved after the school made changes.

"The school should have never been placed on the list," said Goldberg.

"There are areas where we can make improvements but we are making progress. We are exceeding DOE standards in some areas."

Goldberg said the school also needs assistance from the DOE. After two other schools, including Harlem Success Academy, were co-located in Opportunity's building at 113th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the school began offering things like speech therapy in the hallway.

Because of the volume of intensive special services the school offers students, space is one of the biggest keys to the school's success.

"As for a charter school that does what we do, there isn't one," said Goldberg.

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