School Mobility
A Growing and Inequitable Headwind to Educational Achievement
Research on the phenomenon of students changing schools repeatedly, known as school mobility, has – until now – been limited by the inability to capture the complexities at play. Many different reasons can contribute to mobility and its associated effects on students, families, schools, and communities.
 
In this mixed-methods study, the UTSA Urban Education Institute undertook a rigorous examination of the issue within the full context of individual risk factors and societal attributes. What emerged is a unique look at Bexar County’s highly mobile students, particularly when they move in between traditional public schools and public charter schools.
 
What follows are the quantitative report and the associated qualitative case studies that add to a growing body of research suggesting mobility is a key indicator to identify vulnerable students in order to keep them on a path to academic achievement.
 
This report also surfaces implications for local and statewide school leaders and policymakers amid the recent rapid proliferation of public charter schools.
Read the Report
Read or download our School Mobility Report by clicking on the link below.
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Case Study Research Overview

For the qualitative case studies, researchers set out to explore perceptions and experiences of school mobility, particularly when it came to the needs of students with disabilities or disciplinary histories. A total of six case studies were produced after interviews with 24 individuals – including teachers, parents, and advocates for students with disabilities. In order to preserve the anonymity of participants, all names are pseudonyms. 
 
In-depth interviews, open-ended questioning, direct observation, and written documents were used for the purposes of data collection. These qualitative methods allowed for the exploration of school mobility through specific cases within real-life contexts. The objective to collect rich depictions and perspectives of those most involved in the phenomenon of school mobility.
 
In turn, the case study research helped generate alternative explanations of school mobility that could be tested in the multivariate regression analysis. Over the course of a year, these two different research methods informed each other and allowed researchers to dig deeper and ultimately produce richer evidence that answered the research questions.
Read the case studies below.

The Bennett family is tired of moving schools. From public, to private, to charter, and back again, they’ve moved their two sons through the landscape of education options, trying to get help. Instead, they’ve found frustration and disappointment, exemplified by the day they opened their mailbox to find a certified letter from their children’s charter school saying one of their sons would never be welcome there again. Their years-long experience illustrates the cumulative havoc that school switching can wreak on learning and achievement – particularly when it comes to students with special needs and a history of disciplinary actions.

 

Jonathan Bennett started kindergarten in 2012 at his local public school. When he began having problems with his language skills and reading, his parents suspected dyslexia. They pleaded with the school to test Jonathan to see if he was eligible for extra help and services. But instead, the school placed Jonathan in a “Response to Intervention” process, an approach used to identify and support students with suspected learning needs. The Bennetts saw this move as a delay tactic that slammed the door on a potential diagnosis, as well as on desperately needed, specialized services.

 

Looking back, the Bennetts say they believe Jonathan was likely caught up in an even more insidious, systemic breakdown in Texas public schools that has since been deemed illegal. The Texas Education Agency then had quietly set an arbitrary cap by deciding what percentage of students should get special education services. An extensive Houston Chronicle investigation revealed how the money-saving practice was denying thousands of students special education services.

 

In fact, no one told the Bennetts that an official request in writing could trigger testing for their son within 60 days. They say they were told that no diagnosis could be given until Jonathan was in the third grade.

 

Faced with the prospect of Jonathan having to fail for two more years, the Bennetts felt they had no choice but to move him somewhere he could receive expert help for what parental intuition told them was true dyslexia - a disability that cannot be cured or fixed – rather than a mere reading or developmental delay.

 

They first turned to a local private school, where both Jonathan and his younger brother Scott, now in kindergarten, would attend for a brief time. The Bennetts said the school quickly proved ill-prepared to help Jonathan academically, and that they were shocked during a confrontation with a teacher who communicated her belief that Jonathan “needed to be medicated” and claimed that the Bennetts’ hesitation to do so was “damaging their son.”

 

They decided to try something else. They enrolled both boys in the same San Antonio public charter school:  Jonathan in 3rd grade, and Scott starting 1st grade. Again, they encountered resistance when they asked for Jonathan to be tested.

 

Finally, the boys’ mom learned at a webinar about the need for a written – rather than a verbal – request for student testing. She wrote an official request to the charter school, Jonathan was tested, and it confirmed: he was a student with dyslexia.

 

“I had to push so hard to get anything for Jonathan,” she said. “He started in August and it took me until April to finally get him services there.”

 

That’s when the trouble started for younger brother Scott.

 

The Bennetts liked Scott’s first grade teacher at the charter school.  The teacher soon began noticing he was crying a lot in class, though. He’d get frustrated and push his desk. So the teacher began a Response to Intervention (RTI) process to support him and to keep track of such behaviors.

 

SECOND GRADE WAS DIFFERENT FOR SCOTT.

 

“His new teacher was very much like, ‘You will do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it, and how I tell you to do it,’” his mom said. “They got locked into power struggles, and that was kind of the end for Scott. That year was bad, and we should have pulled him out then and saved ourselves some trouble.”

 

It was during this school year that the charter school called Scott’s mom and said they wanted Scott diagnosed as “emotionally disturbed,” a label that requires an official diagnosis and that his mother pushed back on, feeling it was an overreaction. Nevertheless, she sought a professional opinion. Instead of an “emotionally disturbed” diagnosis, a Developmental Pediatrician diagnosed Scott with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and giftedness.

 

She took this diagnosis back to the charter school and they created an Individualized Education Program plan (IEP) for Scott that was meant to help him manage his behavior and have more success at the school socially and academically. Instead, Scott “just got worse and worse and worse,” his mom said.

 

By third grade, Scott was avoiding conflicts by leaving the classroom, or running away and hiding. The charter school was punishing him for these behaviors, instead of relying on the positive reinforcement strategies laid out in Scott’s IEP.

 

“They would give him an out of school suspension for a day, then they would give him an in- school suspension for a day, then he would go back to the classroom and run away again, and they would give him an out of school suspension, and then an in-school suspension,” she said.

She calculated that the last month Scott was at the charter school, he was actually in the classroom less than one third of the time.

 

These instances of the charter school using non-IEP based strategies with Scott peaked in a series of events that his mom said would ultimately lead to Scott being pushed out of the school. One of these instances included a memory Scott’s mom will never forget:

 

“I got a call that I had to come up and it’s like a 35-minute drive in the middle of the day,” she said. “It was so stressful. I’m driving up there and [the administrators at the charter school] were freaking out. I get there, and I’m greeted by the principal and another administrator. She literally said to me, ‘I want you to peek around so he can’t see you, because I want you to see what we’re dealing with.’ So I peek around the corner and Scott is barricaded in a little room with the special ed teacher standing there guarding him, and he had this wild look in his eye that was not him. He was pacing like a lion, and just pacing and pacing. When he saw me, he immediately collapsed to the floor crying. And I asked, ‘Can I go in there, please?’ And I went in there and I just told him, ‘I love you. You’re okay. I’m so sorry. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.’ Then I got him to clean up the room because he had shredded papers and thrown things. I got him to help me put the room back together, and then we left. When we were leaving he said: ‘You say this is the best school for me, but it’s terrible.’”

 

Moments like these led to Scott’s parents finally deciding to pull him out of the charter school, while leaving older brother Jonathan there. After they made the decision, aided by the advice of a helpful play therapist Scott was seeing, they said they eventually came to realize they had actually been pushed out.

 

“For years I had people telling me, ‘They’re trying to push you out,’” Scott’s mom said. “And I’m an optimist. I’m a trusting person. I just believed, ‘No, my kid is just really challenging.’”

 

The Bennetts sent Scott back to their local public school. But the larger, louder, and more crowded setting triggered the worst of his anxiety. Things like the active shooter trainings there added to his diminishing sense of safety in schools.

 

Scott’s self-developed coping mechanism of reading when he was anxious made things worse, leading to confrontations with teachers, and ultimately, to disciplinary action that included a stay in alternative school for 10 days. After exhausting negotiations about how to help Scott succeed with school staff, it was clear that Scott needed more than the school could provide with its resources, his mom said.

 

Out of options and desperate for an environment that worked for Scott, his mom found a way to work from home and enroll him in an online program, where he continues to this day, though his parents continue searching for better options. As a result, Scott’s anxiety has significantly decreased.

 

“As for learning? I don’t know. But I don’t know what else to do with him,” she said.

While they can always try again at their local public school should they choose, one option that is not open to them is returning to the charter school. Scott’s parents received a certified letter from the school informing them that he may never attend any school in that charter system because of his disciplinary infractions. They believe he would be banned from any other charter school in town, given that charters can choose not to admit students with behavioral issues.

 

The Bennetts’ journey trying to get the services both their sons need and have legal rights to has left them feeling like they are “frontiers people” having to figure it all out by themselves. They say they are left wondering what all of these school changes and events will mean for their kids in the future.

 

“I wish that I could fast forward 20 years and see that my kids are okay,” the boys’ mom said. “Then I could push through this kind of calmly. But it’s that fear. I mean, Scott is doing better since he’s been homeschooled, but I’ve always kind of said he’s either going to be a rocket scientist, or he’s going to end up in jail. And I’m not sure right now. It’s like a coin toss.”

The first time the Dunn family met their foster daughter Adie, she wasn’t able to tell them her last name, how old she was, and she didn’t even know how to brush her teeth. Her first four-and-a-half years of life were full of traumas both seen and unseen, and the Dunns knew it. Still, they wanted Adie to have everything that their other children had. They wanted to hand her the world.

 

Yvette Dunn, having raised other children who needed special services, knew foster daughter Adie was developmentally, academically, and emotionally behind her peers. Still, she was prepared to do whatever she had to do to make sure Adie would get the help she needed entering kindergarten. She enrolled her at their local public school – a Title I school with the majority of students and families classified as at-risk and economically disadvantaged – and immediately went to work to get Adie tested so she could receive extra help and services from the school for her developmental and academic delays.

 

The school tested Adie and ultimately explained that she was at the same ability level as her peers entering kindergarten on campus, many of whom couldn’t spell their names or didn’t know their complete alphabet either.

 

However, the school did begin a longer process of observation called Response to Intervention (RTI) in order to determine what classroom strategies or services Adie might need. The drawn-out RTI was still ongoing when the school wanted to promote Adie to 1st grade, despite the fact she was behind a grade level in many areas and hadn’t been given an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that would extend services under special education.

 

“She didn’t know all of her letters, all of her numbers, and several academic things, so I pushed for her to do another year of kindergarten,” Yvette said.

 

In kindergarten for the second time, the problems persisted for Adie. Yvette, now armed with both an independent psychological evaluation and a speech evaluation confirming Adie’s delays, was still waiting to get the services she knew were needed. With precious time passing, Yvette decided to move Adie to a local charter school.

 

“The very first day, I again requested in writing, submitted every single thing that I had on her medical history, two psychological evaluations, speech evaluations, testing from the developmental specialists; everything,” Yvette said.

 

Adie finally was placed on an IEP meant to provide Adie with support services. The charter school had very few students labeled as at-risk or economically disadvantaged, and a much lower percentage of students receiving special education services than the public school, making Adie one of their few students needing this kind of help.

 

It seemed like Adie might get what she needed to be successful in school. But Yvette would soon find out that it wouldn’t be that easy.

 

The charter school didn’t have extensive special education staff and opted to contract out the services Adie needed. An outside speech therapist and occupational therapist worked with Adie, which also meant that Yvette couldn’t speak to the therapists directly. Any communication had to go through the school’s special education director.

 

These restrictions made it harder for Yvette to know what was going on with Adie. Communication became a growing concern when Yvette began feeling that school staff updates were lagging as well.

 

“I did have a problem with them not giving me progress reports and knowing how she is doing,” Yvette said. “The entire time, I did not get any progress reports, whatsoever, as far as how she was progressing according to her IEP goals.”

 

The IEP the charter school developed for Adie included instructions for teachers to use plenty of repetition with her. It called for giving her different things to work on at one time, and making work consistent and stable over time. It also had very specific instructions when it came to how to structure things like Adie’s spelling lists, building gradually over time. These plans were in place to help Adie find a path to success despite her developmental needs.

 

But the plan was just words on paper, Yvette said. It was a constant battle to get the school to adhere to the instructions in it. The school was used to students who conformed to their fast-paced, classical curriculum, and Yvette said there wasn’t much in place to encourage teachers to implement the strategies that Adie’s IEP required. As a result, Adie struggled.

 

Yvette knew by now that she’d have to take up the fight again to get Adie what she needed, so she made copies of Adie’s assignments, studied the IEP and teacher’s instructions carefully, and over the course of a few months, found herself having to push for services once again.

 

“I was constantly emailing things like, ‘Why are you giving her these words?’” Yvette said. “It was constant emails and I wasn’t getting the response that I wanted. There were concerns, not only those academic concerns, but there were other concerns I needed to let them know, and they just didn’t listen to me. So I requested an ARD meeting.”

 

ARD (Admission, Review, and Dismissal) meetings take place among teachers, staff, and parents of students with special needs. At this ARD meeting, Yvette had to show the staff at the charter school visually how the work and classroom style they were providing for Adie wasn’t following the mandated plan they had agreed on.

 

“I had to go to them and say, ‘Look, you’re not following these recommendations,’” Yvette said. “And they said, ‘Okay, well, we have a different teacher in that spot,’ and certain little things like that. Then it was, ‘Okay, we really need to stay on task and stay on these recommendations.’ So it changed and they went back to following the recommendations.”

 

Once they realized Yvette was the kind of parent who was “engaged” and “forceful” on behalf of her child at this meeting, they began to use the strategies in the IEP more frequently. Things have maintained at a steady pace academically at the charter school for now, though Yvette still finds herself having to press the school to get real progress reports and updates on Adie.

In the meantime, Yvette has noticed a change in Adie since enrolling in the charter school that brought new concerns to the surface.

 

“It has caused a lot of anxiety in her,” Yvette said. “She’s lost weight and she bites her fingers now. It’s just a lot. The curriculum is a lot different than a traditional public school.”

 

Yvette credits this rise in anxiety and social alienation in Adie to the charter school’s atmosphere and to a lack of diversity and true peers with whom she can fit in. Because the school serves so few students with special needs like Adie, she is often an outsider, and struggles to keep up and blend in. This has caused Yvette to question if the charter is the right place for Adie.

 

“We are thinking that, because we’ve got the IEP now, and there are no excuses for the public school to not give her services, and because socially, she can fit in with those kids, of putting her back in the public school,” Yvette said.

 

She had made the move from a traditional public school to a charter because she knew her now-adopted daughter needed help in the form of services and an IEP. She got that IEP at the charter school, though the school has not been the simple fix she had hoped. Now she is looking back to her local public school, which could also provide her with much-needed opportunities like a free extended school year, something Adie’s Neural Psychologist recommends, but that the charter school won’t provide unless Yvette can pay for it.

 

Yvette is ready to try the public school again, and to continue doing whatever needs to be done to hand her daughter the world she deserves, no matter what. When she thinks about what she wishes would have been different about her experiences, her wish is clear.

 

“If I could wave a magic wand, it would be to get these schools to listen to the parents,” she explains. “Listen to their concerns. They may listen, but I just don’t think that they really take it to heart.”

Even though Gloria Garcia moved her son Hector out of an in-district, dual-language charter, she believes he was really “pushed out.” She questions how public schools can get away with shunning students who don’t fit a certain mold.

 

The anger rises in Gloria Garcia’s voice as she recalls the stench emanating from her kindergartener’s Ninja Turtle’s backpack.

 

A roll of urine-soaked toilet paper in a plastic Ziploc had been shoved in the bag that Hector carried home after school. A small note taped to the bag indicated only that he’d had an accident.

 

Soon, Garcia would learn from her son that the accident involved public humiliation in the school bathroom by other boys who’d been bullying him. It wasn’t uncommon for Hector, who’d been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and sensory processing disorder, to be called hurtful names such as “retarded” and “brain damaged.”

 

Garcia was furious that no adult contacted her and that her only evidence of the situation was the smelly package sent home in the backpack. At one time, she’d been thrilled and overjoyed that Hector was given a spot in this popular dual-language school. But now, she was beginning to question if it was the right place for him to thrive and learn.

 

When Hector was first diagnosed in preschool with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and a developmental coordination disorder known as dyspraxia, his neurologist worked to educate Garcia about the road ahead. Hector was unlikely to outgrow many of his challenges, the doctor said, explaining that he’d need the proper services - as well as compassion and understanding - at home and in school to succeed.

 

The teachers and administrators at the early childhood education center that Hector was attending helped teach Garcia about the proper educational supports for her son. Her familiarity of Hector’s special learning needs increased, giving her confidence that he could succeed as he moved into kindergarten at the in-district, dual language charter. She was prepared to support her son and help him with any hurdles he might encounter.

 

After learning of Hector’s special needs, the new school set up a 504 education plan for his classroom accommodations. Shortly after, Garcia pushed for a more stringent Individualized Education Program plan (IEP) to improve Hector’s access to the special education services she felt necessary for his education to flourish and thrive. Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings became a normal routine.

 

ARD meetings are intended to allow an equal platform for parents and special education professionals to have a say in how to enhance educational experiences of students with special learning needs and disabilities. But Garcia said it quickly became evident that – because of his unique classification as both a special needs and dual-language student – the school was under-prioritizing services for him. For instance, reading supports were lacking for students in the dual-language program; yet they were plentiful for those students learning within the traditional English-language track, she said.

 

Tensions increased when Garcia invited a behavioral specialist to examine teaching methods in Hector’s classroom to ensure they suited his learning needs. She’d hoped the teacher would be open to any tips to enhance instruction. Instead, the situation spurred an increasingly adversarial relationship between her and the teacher throughout the rest of the school year.

“I just wanted Hector and her to have a great experience,” Garcia said. “She didn’t care for me and Hector as a unit.”

 

At one point, Hector’s decision to climb a bookcase in class one day was coded as grounds towards suspension and expulsion. Garcia wondered whether his frustrations and anxieties around his learning environment might have been involved, but the school didn’t budge on the behavioral infraction. Once again, she got the notion that her son wasn’t welcome. And she worried that his education, behavioral needs, emotional needs, and physical well-being were at stake.

 

By second grade, Garcia was hit with the realization that Hector was severely behind in reading and writing levels compared to his peers. Again, the ARD meetings became tense as she says her advocacy for the proper services for her son were dismissed.

 

“(The school’s) position was like, ‘We’re not going to provide you with any assistance or support,’” she recalled. “They were just very resistant to doing anything like that…The school was not equipped to provide reading support in Spanish…I got tired of fighting.”

 

Further demoralizing to Garcia were administrators’ remarks about whether Hector was being medicated, as well as their interrogations about her parenting practices. As his special education and sensory needs continued to be neglected, Garcia said his responses and actions were quick to be labeled as “deviant” without any attempt of restorative or holistic intervention.

 

It was enough to finally convince Garcia to pull Hector out, though she also sees it as the school pushing them out.

 

Hector’s last ARD meeting wasn’t very warm or pleasant. To Garcia’s surprise, the facilitator recommended Hector be transferred to an English-only classroom under an assumption that he would be better served there. A hopeful Garcia was quick to support the idea and asked if Hector could join an English-only class at the school. The facilitator rejected that possibility, saying those spaces were intended to serve only students within the school’s feeder pattern, which Hector wasn’t.

 

“It clicked to me that they didn’t want us there,” she said. “They were never going to rise to the occasion like I hoped they would.”

 

Hector is now at a neighborhood public school that isn’t a charter or a magnet. Garcia said she’s seen a marked improvement in Hector’s growth and she treasures the close relationship she has with the principal. She still attends ARD meetings, but the atmosphere is relaxed and non-confrontational.

 

“The feeling in the room during meetings is real – we’re all here to rally around Hector,” she said.

For this father, the process of navigating the proper services for his son who has autism has been one of frustration and disenchantment with public schools. Changing schools and encountering a system stressed to the brink ultimately stifled his son’s development and forced the family into making less than ideal compromises.

 

At 16, David is into the Caribbean hip hop beat of reggaeton music. He really loves Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rican artist who has collaborated with singers Cardi B and Drake. Even though David doesn’t communicate verbally, his parents say his music tastes are clear.

 

David was one year old when it became clear he wasn’t hitting key communication and motor skills milestones. A developmental pediatrician diagnosed his 3p deletion syndrome, a condition which falls on the autism spectrum. So David’s parents Andrew and Victoria knew early on that he’d need specialized services and supports upon reaching school age.

 

Back then, they couldn’t have predicted how disheartened they’d become in their search for quality, school-based services for David. In their journey, they encountered overworked, under-resourced special education departments stretched to their limits. They switched public elementary schools twice, which shook the foundation they’d been trying to build for David. Finally, they sought legal support to protect his right to evidence-based, specialized services. Even with the legal recourse, it wasn’t enough. David had already lost too much ground.

 

Individuals with the chromosomal deletion syndrome that David has experience severe intellectual disabilities and developmental delays. Even though language and motor skills are affected, evidence-based therapies have shown success in increasing communication and attention skills, as well as in decreasing problem behaviors.

 

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), David was supposed to be getting these specialized services from the traditional public elementary school he began attending in kindergarten. For children with autism, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is essential to promote healthy development since it helps develop focus and curtail certain behaviors that decrease functioning in social and academic environments.

 

Andrew and Victoria thought their son was receiving these services until his teacher shed light on the actual situation—instead of prescribed daily therapy and weekly progress reports David ought to receive, the school only provided biweekly therapy and a progress report twice a year.

 

That’s when David’s parents decided to seek legal support. With the help of a hired attorney and an advocate for children with disabilities, they were able to transfer him to another public elementary school in the same school district. David’s teacher there was a certified ABA therapist whose child also had special needs. They were fortunate – certification process is long and expensive. Having even one such certified therapist within a traditional public school setting is rare, they said.

 

At the time of David’s experiences in public school, his parents said, the school district also only had one autism specialist who instructed every teacher in the district on ABA therapy. In Texas, the system set up to help students with special needs often is understaffed in schools, which struggle to keep up with complex legal requirements and needs for specialized services.

 

As a father, Andrew often felt his dealings with public school district administrators were clouded by obscure language, recommendations, and policies in an attempt to hide their lack of resources for providing adequate special services. He remarked, “[School administrators] will never mention that they don’t have enough staff and that they don’t have the…capacity.“

 

Clashes with public school administrators continued for Andrew as he and other parents were urged not to organize for more services. He pointed to loopholes in the federal IDEA laws for being partly at fault.

 

“I don’t think it’s strong enough law. School districts find ways to get around it,” he said. “I think the way they get around it is with just not providing services to children who are not verbal and can’t communicate; even when a student didn’t get services, the schools just claim that they did.”

 

Andrew believes educators are also victims of the under-resourced public school system. He described how although some specialized teachers exist, it is not enough for the few to bear all of the weight for an entire district. Eventually, David’s certified ABA teacher at his second elementary school couldn’t keep up with all the work and demands. Overburdened and burnt out, she ended up leaving the school district to work in a charter school.

 

“She was a really great teacher. But she still got afraid because even she knew what really needed to be done [to serve students with special needs] and what wasn’t getting done but it was out of her control,” Andrew said. “These teachers end up getting the blame when it’s really more the administration’s fault.”

 

In the end, seeing that David would not be getting proper therapy from his second public school attempt, his parents decided to transfer him to a local, private behavioral health center school that specializes in ABA therapy. David’s education and care is paid for by medical health insurance.

 

Still, Andrew finds himself longing for the day when David might return to public school. He says David’s new specialized center doesn’t offer a lot of comprehensive learning and socialization with his peers. Students vary greatly in age and in development, with each focusing on specific needs rather than the more group-focused rhetoric of traditional schooling.  

Ideally, David would receive specialized therapy while also interacting and taking classes with peers, providing a comprehensive education that combines learning with socialization in a streamlined manner, Andrew said. Instead, his parents now work hard to find camps or proms where David can have social experiences with his peers. If David had the best of both worlds from an early age, a reality that public school could ideally offer, then there’s no telling how much he could have improved. It is something that Andrew and Victoria are still searching for.

If a tax-supported, public charter school markets itself as high-achieving with a rigorous curriculum, how are students with special needs accommodated, if at all? The case of Denise Jones, a high school teacher in this San Antonio charter network, shows that the idea of accommodating in the classroom can conflict with an accelerated academic curriculum that’s low on teacher autonomy and instead based on rigid metrics and high expectations. Jones describes a sink-or-swim approach that pushed out students who learn differently and can’t keep up.

 

Denise Jones calls the new teacher training she received from a San Antonio high-performing charter school network as “the least educational of all the educational conferences I’ve ever been to.” The out-of-state seminars she was required to attend felt more like multi-level marketing than learning about how to craft effective lessons for high schoolers. Her wary feeling only grew during her first year of teaching there, especially when she encountered students who couldn’t keep up amid the fast-paced, advanced curriculum.

 

Jason was one such student. A 9th grader who loved reading dystopian fantasy novels, he had high-functioning autism. Jason arrived with an Individualized Education Program plan (IEP), a customized learning plan for students receiving special education. But it soon became clear to Denise that the accelerated, metrics-based education of her school made meeting Jason’s IEP – which required specialized, step-by-step micro-learning breakdowns for each concept – essentially impossible.

 

Denise made her feelings clear to administrators when she began refusing to sign documents stating that she, as Jason’s teacher, was meeting the legally mandated requirements of his IEP. She couldn’t in good conscience say she was able to properly differentiate learning as his plan laid out.

 

And she didn’t feel she was well-versed in special education techniques, since her only training in it was a series of short video modules the school had her watch one day before school began.

 

“He was not getting what he needed,” Denise said. “And he was very interested in the subject matter...It was bad for him, but also, from a teacher’s perspective, it made you feel like a failure.”

 

Denise said the overall idea of special education for students is completely disconnected from the type of learning expected at this charter network known for attracting a high number of intellectual and high performing students. Simply put, the school does not structure their systemized curriculum around students like Jason, she said.

“There was no way to accommodate [Jason’s] IEP…because you’re not allowed to divert from the ultimate goal,’’ Denise said, referring to the ultimate goal of reaching 100 percent mastery of each topic that teachers must measure.

 

For Denise, the process was antithetical to every ideal she held about teaching.

 

“It’s never the fault of the student,” she said. “If the student, particularly a student who is accommodated, is floundering, you need to be able to be there. But at our campus,  you conform to (the school) – (the school) does not conform to you.”

 

One way Denise attempted to buffer students like Jason from the high demands of the school was by setting up a comfortable classroom complete with lots of books and an open-door policy. She described it as a “rogue classroom” where students loved to hang out – coming in early in the morning and often staying late.

 

The curriculum at the school was driven by a Bloom’s taxonomy model, where students would learn percentages of a subject until they reached 100 percent of each topic, she said. The school also bases its curriculum around Advanced Placement exams, teaching towards these tests from eighth grade up. Metrics accompany every topic in the curriculum and teachers’ main responsibilities were to show total adherence to the curriculum. To Denise, it felt like students were removed from education, and were only seen as numbers.

 

“It takes the student out of it. The student is an object,” she said. “Because the students are a tool to achieve a larger goal, it’s unimportant who the students are.”

 

This impersonal nature came into sharp focus for Denise when she was reprimanded for taking a stand on Jason’s unmet special education requirements. But instead of offering Denise additional help or giving Jason specialized supports through the one special education coordinator on campus, administrators decided to hold meetings regarding his academic performance and his future at the school, she said.

 

“In the meeting with the teachers, the question that came up was ‘Is this a student we should counsel out?’ They call it something - not ‘counsel out’ - but-they had a saying like ‘Everybody is right for (the school), but (the school) may not be right for you.’ So, it was agreed that the student should be counseled out,” she said.

 

“Counseling out” is prohibited by federal law under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits disability-based discrimination. Schools that receive taxpayer funding – both traditional and public charter schools – are prohibited under law from limiting services provided to students with disabilities.

 

Jason ended up staying for the rest of the school year, but then he changed schools. Denise said his IEP was still not followed during the rest of his time there. What was supposed to be a year of learning ended up being a year wasted.

 

“It was a huge disservice to him, because he was really smart, and he kind of had a lost year,” she said.

Passion, initiative, and care are essential qualities of impactful educators, but what happens when school administrators instead prioritize scripted lessons and impeccable student behavior? In this San Antonio public charter school, a new teacher only lasts a year after growing disheartened by data demands, ineffective bureaucracy and an overly authoritative administration style.

 

Candice was startled by shouts coming from outside of her classroom. There stood Alex, one of her students, wiping his tears. Frustration and defeat flashed in his eyes. Alex’s mother was crying and yelling at him in Spanish: “Stop being lazy and get your act together!” Candice could barely believe what happened next. Her principal – through a translator – threatened Alex’s mom: “You’re lucky that your son is still here. We could kick him out if we wanted to, but he’s going to go to a bad public school and fall through the cracks.”

 

It wasn’t the first time Candice had seen shame-based disciplinary strategies used at the publicly funded, privately run charter school. It was a place of rules, regulations, and high expectations, she said. And everyone – from students and families to teachers and administrators – feels the pressure, she said.

 

As charter school enrollment continues to skyrocket in the San Antonio area, many are grappling with pace of growth and its demands. Since 2009, charter school enrollment has grown by more than 200 percent. With promises such as 100 percent college acceptance, some charter schools are marketing themselves as places of privilege and prestige.  However, Candice and many others worry that these rapidly growing institutions’ fierce drive to expand has stretched their resources and clouded the very mission of public education, putting the most vulnerable students at risk.

 

When provided the opportunity to teach at a popular and fast-growing San Antonio charter school, Candice was elated — what better way to begin her dream career as a special education teacher in a city she loves? Months later, she found herself teaching in a school where hallways were eerily quiet and elementary students were forced to walk in straight lines, looking down at their raised palms which held books — sometimes real, sometimes imaginary.

 

Candice resolved that she would provide a safe space where students could fully express themselves as they learned. As a special education teacher, she taught students with Individualized Education Program plans (IEPs), which outline necessary special accommodations and educational services in educational settings. Part of the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), IEPs are created by a team of educators and parents and monitored by classroom teachers.

 

However, Candice said she never witnessed schoolwork independently to proactively identify children who had special needs. Rather, administrators only accepted IEPs from other schools when students transferred in, she said. She shudders to think of how many children there are struggling because their learning differences or disabilities have gone essentially ignored.

 

Candice also noticed that administrators overpromised when it came to the IEP plans from students moving into the charter school. She shared that a student who transferred had documents requiring a “push-in,” meaning that a special education teacher must be with him at all times throughout the school day. But the school never complied, nor told the parents they did not have the resources to comply, she said.

 

“(Curriculum and learning is) supposed to be differentiated and special for them—it’s really not,” she said. “It is very structured and scripted and does not allow for a lot of wiggle room from the teacher.”

 

Her desire to provide a comfortable, dynamic learning environment proved to be a difficult task as most of her efforts had to be most invested in keeping up with data demands from school administrators.

 

“We had weekly data calls where we would be reviewing reports and I’d say, ‘Well, can we try this?’ And they’d say ‘No, that’s not on the program,” she recalled. “It’s impossible to meet the needs of all of your students when your program is heavily scripted. How could I go about affecting change on my campus without putting myself at risk of being fired?”

 

While “measuring student improvement” through data reports helped identify and address gaps quickly, teachers and students were shamed when they did not meet administrators’ desired goals, she said.

 

Candace says this approach, used alone without other nuanced strategies for student achievement, is detrimental for students and teachers.

 

“You can see the impact it has on students when you’re telling them every day: ‘You failed again, you failed again, you failed again.’ And the same for teachers. It’s very disheartening. I’m seeing the same populations falling through the cracks. The services that we provide them are not adequate. I think that a lot of the teachers feel pressure in that sense. They’re getting all this pressure from administrators but not adequate support to boost the kids to where they need to be. So that just creates a pretty intense environment day to day.”

 

Candace recalls the days when she had Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings with parents. These meetings, meant for educators and parents to share their expertise on each student and come up with an appropriate education plan, are crucial in providing specialized education. Candice was tasked with organizing, scheduling, and facilitating all of these meetings, making her typical workday last from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

 

However, what frustrated her most was the culture of punishment and shaming towards students and teachers.

 

Soon after the incident with Alex in the hallway, Candice decided she could not return to teach the next school year. She had come to appreciate Alex’s wit and sense of humor and she could always count on him to brighten her day. Still, it was no secret that the pre-teen faced challenges in and out of school. He had become a caregiver for his younger siblings and Candice was almost sure this responsibility and an underlying health issue were the reason for him constantly falling asleep in class.

 

She describes her “last straw moment” as the day when she was assigned to supervise the afterschool suspension session for students with behavior issues. She was shocked to find herself in a militarized environment where kids were made to perform manual labor around the school grounds.

 

“I’m walking up and down these stairs as little brown boys scrubbed. And our principal—a white man—just kind of resided over them. I was like, ‘I need to leave this campus,’” she said.

 

As much as it pained her to leave her students in this environment, Candice resigned from her position and is teaching at a new school. She worries for the students she left behind and the parents who keep them enrolled based on the promise that they are providing their children with the best education this city has to offer.

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