By James Vaznis GLOBE STAFF
Charter schools across Massachusetts, which critics accuse of dodging a public duty to teach students with disabilities or language barriers, are stepping up their efforts to educate those students through a new statewide collaborative that will enable the institutions to share staff, training, and programs.
The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association is launching the collaborative with a $2 million federal grant it received last month. The association says the collaborative will allow charter schools to create economies of scale that, in turn, should result in more robust educational experiences for special-education students and those who speak limited English.
Many charter schools, which often serve just a few hundred students, experience difficulties sustaining programs because of fluctuations in enrollment, said Janine Matho, the association’s chief of policy and practice.
“At single-site schools, their programs grow and shrink depending on the needs of the students enrolled at the school,” Matho said.
One common problem charter schools frequently face is finding a speech therapist who can work two days a week with a small number of students, she said. But by creating the collaborative, charter schools could join forces to hire a shared full-time speech therapist.
The collaborative is taking root as many charter and traditional schools have been struggling to educate these two student populations. In Boston, the US departments of education and justice recently conducted a compliance review that found thousands of English-language learners in the city’s school system may be receiving insufficient specialized services or none at all.
Boston school leaders appear increasingly concerned the federal agencies might pursue litigation to force compliance. Last month, the school system appointed an attorney who specializes in compliance to oversee its program for English-language learners, while the School Committee discussed the compliance review in an executive session under the pretense of “litigation strategy.”
Education advocates, who have been critical of charter schools, said they were unsure whether the new charter-school collaborative could lead to better opportunities for students.
“The numbers tell the story,” said Roger Rice of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy Inc., a Somerville-based organization that works on behalf of linguistic minorities. “At least in Boston, charter schools do not take English-language learners in nearly the proportion of the Boston Public Schools, and they typically don’t take English-language learners with little command of English.”
But he added, “Any effort that pays attention to a long-neglected obligation to serve these kids equally I’m in favor of.”
Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are intended to be laboratories of educational innovation. The state’s 81 schools operate under looser state regulations than traditional schools, are rarely unionized, and almost always operate independently of local school systems.
Many charter schools have among the highest MCAS scores, but some struggle academically.
Critics of charter schools, including many teacher unions and superintendents, accuse charter schools of artificially inflating their success by forcing out students who are difficult to teach, such as those with disabilities or a language barrier — allegations that charter schools deny.
But enrollment of the two student populations at many charter schools has been lower than the enrollment rates of the same populations in the traditional schools in their communities. Consequently, a change in state law in 2010 required charter schools to step up their recruitment efforts of such students, which has lead to some increases in their enrollment at many schools.
According to the most recent state data, 8.7 percent of students enrolled in charter schools statewide during the last school year lacked fluency in English, up from 4.4 percent in the 2009-10 school year. Similarly, 13.6 percent of students in charter schools last year had disabilities, up from 11.8 percent in 2009-10.
Wide disparities continue to exist, though, between charter schools in urban areas and their respective school districts, especially in enrolling students with language barriers.
While many specifics of the new collaborative are being worked out, the charter-school association said many charter schools have programs in place that could likely be replicated or provide training opportunities for staff from other schools.
Match Community Day Charter School in Boston has achieved significant success in teaching English-language learners, who make up more than 80 percent of the school’s enrollment, by tapping a variety of strategies, such as intensive tutoring. On last spring’s MCAS, 55 percent of the school’s third-graders scored advanced and proficient in reading, and 88 percent scored in those two categories in math.
Charter school leaders said they look forward to the opportunity to work more closely with each other.
“We work hard to serve those students,” said Shannah Varon, executive director of the Boston Collegiate Charter School.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.