By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News [from the Contra Costa Times online]
23 Feb 2009 | None of the 29 Los Angeles Unified charter schools examined in a study released Monday met state and federal standards aimed at making campuses accessible to disabled students, and some even lacked wheelchair-friendly bathrooms and walkways.
The study by a federally appointed independent monitor also revealed that the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, which determines whether schools are compliant with these laws, is not making proper inspections.
An independent monitor was appointed in 2003 to oversee a federal consent decree imposed on the school district to improve special education services. An earlier report by the monitor also blasted LAUSD charter schools for enrolling fewer disabled students overall and fewer with severe disabilities than traditional schools.
"This is part of a larger issue ... and that is whether charter schools, which are a growing proportion of schools in LAUSD, welcome and are accessible to students with disabilities," said Independent Monitor Fred Weintraub.
"Our studies have shown that is not currently the case and we're looking to the district to improve the situation."
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently from the district, are an increasingly popular option for parents of L.A. Unified students. Currently, LAUSD has 151 charter schools within its attendance boundaries - more than any other school district in the country - and it could see more than a dozen new campuses open next year.
Chime Charter School, which is an elementary and middle school developed in partnership with California State University, Northridge, was the only San Fernando Valley school examined in the study and only its middle school was inspected.
Charter school operators and supporters were quick to question the findings of the report and denied that charter schools on the whole were not accessible to students with disabilities.
"As far as making sure all children have access to charter school facilities there is no entity more committed to that than the charter community itself," said Jed Wallace, president of California Charter Schools Association.
"We are not complacent on this, and if there is an instance or two where something has to be addressed we will help schools."
But Wallace said he did not believe that all 29 schools were out of compliance.
Wallace also stressed that if charter schools were going to be criticized for not meeting accessibility requirements, LAUSD officials should also be chided for failing to provide charters with access to facilities, as required by state law.
"It is challenging for the charter community to hear these issues when the findings fail to take into account that the district is obligated to provide facilities to charters and has been either unwilling or unable to provide these facilities," Wallace said.
While Weintraub's report questions the accuracy of some of the Building and Safety clearances, charter advocates believe the clearances serve as proof of their compliance.
"There is a difference of opinion here between two agencies. We believe the Department of Building and Safety makes their recommendations on compliance issues and we will continue to work with them," Wallace said.
A Building and Safety spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
The independent monitor's report also found safety hazards and security concerns at the 29 charter schools. Because the report was limited to special education issues, it urged district and city officials to look into these safety concerns.
Jose Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD's director of charter schools, said that his office will be immediately following up with all the schools mentioned in the report.
"Safety and access for all children at whatever school they attend is a priority, and it is obvious that these findings raise concerns in terms of that fundamental tenet," Cole-Gutierrez said.
"Now that we've found these issues we will be working together to see how we correct them."
If a charter is located on LAUSD-owned or leased land, repairs will be covered by the district. But charters that lease or own their own land would have to cover the cost of repairs themselves, he said.
Julie Fabrocini, executive director of Chime Charter Middle School in Chatsworth, said that she questioned the expertise of the people who conducted the inspections on her campus.
"I have been a special education teacher for over 20 years, I have a master's degree in working with severely disabled children, and I am a part-time faculty member at Cal State University Northridge and I don't consider myself qualified to evaluate (compliance issues), so I want to know about the expertise of the person who made these findings," Fabrocini said.
Chime Charter School was created with a full inclusion model designed to have students with special needs and general education students take classes together.
At both campuses, 15 percent to 20percent of students have special needs, and Faborcini said a large proportion of them are severely disabled. Yet she has never dealt with any complaints from parents about accessibility.
"Our parents are our partners in problem-solving accessibility issues," Fabrocini said. "Is everything perfect? ... No ... but accessibility is a continuum that is constantly changing ... the fact is we have kids with significant physical disabilities, in wheelchairs and walkers and with multiple disabilities who fully access our campus."
The report raised concerns among some school board members, who said questions needed to be answered before more charters are launched.
"This disturbing evidence in combination with some of the other statistics we are getting paint a very disturbing picture and raise questions on whether public charters really serve all children," said LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer.
"If charter school operators do not show that they are willing and able to make this a priority, I don't think we should charter any other school."
For the Independent Monitor's complete report, visit www.oimla.com.