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Charter School for Students with Learning Disabilities Losing Middle School

By Dartunorro Clark | March 10, 2017 4:21pm | Updated on March 13, 2017 8:53am
 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

HARLEM — A charter school that serves students with learning disabilities will lose its middle school and cannot expand into elementary grades due to low performance, the city said. 

Opportunity Charter School, at 240 W. 113th St., received the news last week from the Department of Education, which cited the fact the school met only four of the 22 criteria set by the agency for it to maintain its size.

“Opportunity Charter School was given clear performance benchmarks over the last five years, and the middle school grades did not meet them,” DOE spokesman Michael Aciman said.

 Students with special education needs learn in the same classroom with general education students at Opportunity Charter School.
Students with special education needs learn in the same classroom with general education students at Opportunity Charter School.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

“We’re committed to providing every New York City student with a high-quality education, and will work closely with current middle school families to ensure they have access to a higher performing school that will better meet their individual needs and support their success.”

The benchmarks were put in place in 2012, when the DOE announced the school's charter was in jeopardy of not being renewed because of poor performance, DNAinfo New York previously reported

At that time, Opportunity ranked near the bottom when it came to English and math proficiency, college readiness, and graduation rate, the DOE said.

The DOE now mandates that charter schools meet certain requirements, such as meeting or exceeding district or citywide averages for ELA and math exams, passing Regents exams and graduation rates for students with disabilities.

Opportunity's middle school has not met any of those benchmarks — only reaching four of the 22 goals required by the city. 

For example, the DOE said the school hovered between 0 percent and 4 percent in both ELA and math proficiency for the past five years, when citywide proficiency was 8 percent in ELA and 7 percent in math.

As a result, the charter school will have to remove its middle school grades, cannot expand into elementary grades, and its high school grades will have to be evaluated after three years to determine its future. 

Half the students at the school, which opened in 2004, having learning disabilities or emotional or behavioral issues.

The charter wanted to add elementary grades in order to focus solely on special-education students, as other charter schools in the city often focus on admitting “higher-performing” students, said Opportunity founder and CEO Leonard Goldberg.

“Students that come to us in sixth grade are usually several grade levels behind,” noted school spokesman Jason Maymon.

“For us, the logical answer and the most sensible answer that’s been proven in the academic community is to reach students in their developmental stages in kindergarten.”

Officials argued the city's criteria should be different for Opportunity because the school often handles children coming from difficult situations, particularly those with a special-education designations.

“The only thing we asked them to do is be fair and add additional performance metrics,” Maymon said.

For instance, during the 2013-'14 and 2015-'16 school years, Opportunity's average ELA exam scores increased year over year, officials said. But that metric wasn’t taken into account by the DOE, Maymon said. 

Opportunity officials also pointed to the charter's graduation rate, which was 70 percent during the 2014-'15 school year, matching the DOE's goal.

“It’s easy for the DOE to say that we were underperforming or a poor-performing school, but the DOE benchmarks are not designed for schools like OCS that serves high populations of students with disabilities or low-performing students,” Maymon explained.

“We certainly realize that we can do better, particularly with the middle school. One of the ways in which we were planning to address that — particularly with the middle school — is by reaching these same students earlier in their developmental stages.”

The school is also projecting an 82 percent graduation rate this year, officials said.

The DOE's decision has “baffled” the school community and worried many parents, school officials said.

“To upend a population of students that are receiving 100 percent of the special-education services that they need… you see that this is not in the best interest of children,” Goldberg said.

The school now plans to fight the decision with an appeal, and the DOE said Opportunity has until March 23 to submit a written argument.

If the decision sticks, the department will have meetings with families and possibly place their children at other district schools, the DOE said.