February 6, 2019

Educator Voices: KIPP Texas Teachers Share Perspectives on Special Education and School Choice

KIPP Austin College Prep staff.
KIPP Austin College Prep staff.

Framing The Conversation

Recently, Texas State Representatives Gina Hinojosa (State Rep HD-49), Mary Gonzalez (State Rep HD-75), and Shawn Thierry (State Rep HD-146) have been vocal with their opinions on public charter schools, school choice and special education, and some criticisms of two KIPP schools in particular have been shared broadly.

A group of teachers and faculty from KIPP Austin College Prep (KACP), one of the schools mentioned in their remarks, felt compelled to respond and correct the misinformation that was shared as fact. These leaders have taken a strong stance to give more insight into their work with our students and correct any misconceptions that exist about KIPP Texas.

Hearing From Our Educators

The first issue raised was in response to State Reps stating that KIPP “denies admission to students in special education” without explaining how. In one example, KACP was compared to Webb Middle School in the Austin Independent School District which is the home to centralized special education programs for Life Skills and a Social Behavior Skills program for Austin ISD. This means when there are not specialized programs available for Austin ISD students in their home school, they are transferred to Webb, creating a larger special needs program by design.

Our teachers responded with strong disagreement to this comparison:

“The suggestion that because a nearby school has a higher percentage of students in special education, our school must be “cherry-picking students,” and denying “access to these educational opportunities” is false. This assertion fails to consider both the quality of education students in special education receive at each respective campus, and the many complicated reasons for why their parents may choose to send them to a charter school like KACP.”

The group further explained how the KIPP Texas student selection process works in their response to the State Reps:

“To be clear, KIPP Austin College Prep, like every other KIPP Texas campus and school district, has no mechanism, policy, or practice for denying admission, evaluation, or services to students with special needs. Our admissions policy clearly states “there are no academic or behavioral requirements for enrollment.” Furthermore, students are admitted by random lottery, and no part of our application process requires families to disclose if their child receives special education services. We do not know if a student qualifies for special education services until they register for school, and we eagerly welcome all students of any ability and disability status.”

They continued:

“It should be noted that KIPP schools in Texas educate all students including those who experience blindness, autism, oppositional defiance, emotional disturbances, severe developmental delays, speech impairments, deafness, in addition to many other disabilities. We provide a differentiated approach based on the needs of our students.”

As KIPP Texas – Austin’s population has grown, the district developed new programs to better support students with the highest learning needs. For example, the GAIN (Growing Academics and Independence iNclusively) program teaches academics and life skills to students with learning needs that require more specialized support, like Down Syndrome. Additionally, the BEST (Behavior and Emotional Support Team) program supports students with severe behavioral and emotional needs to self-regulate their emotions and become successful in an academic setting. On a recent school survey distributed to all 434 students at KACP, 100% of students in special education agreed that they feel safe at school, a remarkable result considering the troubling trend of bullying in schools against students in special education.

When communicating with families whose students have exceptional learning needs, their reasons for matriculating to KIPP continue to highlight common trends: students not in KIPP are frequently held to lower expectations, and our parents seek out KIPP for its demonstrated success with students in special education. Our students’ parents often tell our staff about their child not being evaluated for their learning disability, or their child not being successful in academics until they came to KACP. In addition, KIPP Austin College Prep is a feeder school to KIPP Austin Collegiate, ranked ninth best high school in the state and 54th best high school in the nation by US News and World Report. While we cannot tell the stories of individual students from KACP due to privacy concerns, many of our graduates who were in special education programs are now persisting in college, own small businesses, and choose to come back to serve as teachers and mentors on our campus.

The KACP team had these closing remarks to share with the State Reps:

“As middle school educators, by nature we have a thick skin – its part of the job description. However, we find the remarks from our State Reps to be a misrepresentation of our school policies, and therefore our values, misinforms the public about the tireless work of both our school and our district.”

The group of teachers extended the offer to the State Reps and their respective staffs to come see KIPP in action for themselves with this invitation:

“To address the concerns you may still have about KIPP Austin College Prep, we warmly welcome you to visit our campus. Listen to the stories and experiences of our students with special needs and their families, see the practices in our classrooms and specialized programs, and use this information to inform your decisions as a legislator. We would especially love to have you address our student body to talk about your work in the legislature. We believe each you would have many valuable contributions that would be inspiring to our students. We look forward to working collectively with you to improve educational equity in Texas.”

Standing By Our Teachers

KIPP Texas Public Schools educates more than 27,700 students across the state of Texas. Within each one of those students, we see the unique individuals with bright young minds that we are honored to mold and support as they continue on the path to and through college to pursue their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.

As a public charter school network, we support a family’s choice to find the best school for their child and we invite families from all backgrounds to engage in the school selection process to find the best school for their child. For families who have students with special needs, the school selection process can be even more daunting.

Being a large public education entity does not come without criticism; support for students with special needs has been a popular topic of discussion where charter schools do not always come out with the best reputation, with the main criticism being that charter schools are not effectively serving special needs students in the same way traditional public schools are. While we believe in and are being held accountable and to the highest standards as we strive to put our students first, we also believe in representing an accurate reflection of our schools and the people who work in them.