This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Cecelia Thompson is a Philadelphia mom dealing with the stress of the everyday – helping with homework, cooking dinner, doing laundry. Soon, it was time for her son to apply to high schools.
Thompson’s son has severe autism and needs extra help in the classroom. Thompson knew she wanted him to go to a top high school in the District, but when he was rejected from his first choice, she turned to the LeGare process to help her.
LeGare is intended to provide an equal opportunity for special education and English-learner students to get accepted to citywide and special admission high schools. Although the process was time-consuming and often tedious, it ended in success for Thompson.
LeGare was instituted after a 1994 court case in which a student, Lemar LeGare, was consistently denied admittance to schools because of his special needs status. Since the consent decree was issued a year later, schools are encouraged to waive some requirements for special needs students, including test scores, attendance, and behavior records.
Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center who deals with LeGare-related cases, said having an advocate help with the process is the first and most important step for special needs students in applying to high schools. That is usually the school counselor, who is supposed to help students determine which application criteria can be waived.
Megan Lello, a said all counselors in District schools that serve 8th graders receive annual training on the LeGare process. “Each counselor is equipped to fulfill the duties associated with this process,” Lello said.
In 1998, four years after the LeGare consent decree, targets were set for special admission schools and other schools and programs that have entrance criteria, including Career and Technical Education. The goals vary, depending on the type of school. For special admission schools, the goal is that special needs students make up 7 percent of their enrollment and English learners should make up 7 percent. For other schools and programs with less-stringent requirements, the goals are 10 percent.
Since 1998, some individual schools have met the established targets. But in no year have all the schools met the targets. Some, most notably Central and Masterman, have consistently fallen well below them.
Aside from the usual transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays, students applying to high schools through LeGare have to put together a larger packet of information. For Thompson, this included letters of recommendation from general education teachers, special education teachers, and outside organizations where her son had volunteered. She also provided letters from her son’s clinical psychologist about his cognitive needs and three certificates from principals of high schools where her son had spent time shadowing other students.
“Gathering the information is cumbersome,” Thompson said.
On top of the high number of materials needed for the packet, Thompson said, she and her son faced other barriers to entry. The shadowing process, for one, required her son to sit in on high school classes and do the work. And when she submitted the packet, it had to be done in person rather than electronically.
“I made a copy of my packet,” she said. “I was not surprised when my packet was misplaced, which is why I had my copy.”
She sought help from a counselor at her son’s middle school to better understand the process, but was unable to receive information from that person.
“Many counselors do not know about the LeGare process,” she said. “When I asked to have the ‘LeGare packet’ for my son, the counselor was reluctant. I had to go through the principal for the packet to be compiled.”
LeGare applies to all District schools and programs that have admissions requirements, but charters were not a part of the LeGare lawsuit and are not affected by the consent decree.
Thompson said charter schools never seemed like a good option for her son, so she did not take time to apply to them.
But McInerney said that parents of special needs students and English learners need to be aware of their rights In both instances. Just as some families are not aware of the LeGare process, some also don’t realize that charter schools are public schools and are required to insure equal access for all students.
“There is a culture in some charters and in some citywide and special admission schools that fail to insure equal access for this population and fail to develop proper support and accommodations and instruction,” said McInerney. “You need leadership dedicated to equal access in District or charter schools. Teachers must be willing to work with children with disabilities and English learners to assure they have equal opportunities to learn.”
Thompson said that some charters are known for “counseling out’ students, meaning encouraging families to apply to other schools. Others, however, have high levels of special education students. Mastery Charter high schools are made up of 25 percent special education students, compared to a charter average of 19 percent special education students. In District schools as a whole, 15 percent of students have special needs.
“We are prepared to serve all students who enroll at Mastery schools,” said Rae Oglesby, a spokesperson for Mastery. “For students with disabilities, we have a comprehensive model, including special education programming that provides most types of support at the level that meets students’ needs. The IEP [individualized education program] team, which includes the parents, determines each student’s program.”
However, such an individualized education is expensive. According to the National Education Association, the average cost per student nationally is $7,552, while the average cost per special education student nationally is $16,921, almost $10,000 more than general education students.
McInerney said it is important to keep in mind that the phrase “special education” covers a broad variety of students. “You need to dig into those charter school numbers to see if those children have more mild disabilities in speech or language, but [the schools are] not taking in children with more severe disabilities,” she said.
The amount of money that charter schools get for each special education student has long been a subject of controversy. State aid to districts for special education has three tiers, based on the severity of the disability, but the charter law is different. For each student with an IEP, the charter gets the same amount. In Philadelphia, the number is more than three times as much – $29,300 for each special education student compared to $9,099 for each regular education student.
But charter schools also are not required to spend all that money on special education students, and many don’t. Studies have shown that charters mostly serve students with milder disabilities, such as speech and language impairment, and not those with severe and expensive needs, such as autism. For some charters, it amounts to a “windfall,” McInerney said.
At the same time, District schools are left with a higher concentration of students with more severe needs, often without the necessary resources. “We’ve had several cases that have involved parents of children with disabilities who were counseled away from charter schools or told that they didn’t have a program that would accommodate their child,” she said. “They are not allowed to do that. That is absolutely illegal.
“I want people to know about this, and I want families to know they have rights.”
The District provides a slideshow presentation on its website about the logistics of the LeGare process, but does not provide information for students applying to charters. Students with IEPs who are thinking of applying only to neighborhood schools, charters, private, or out-of-city high schools must complete a statement of non-participation in the LeGare process, also found on the District website.
Thompson, now the proud parent of a special admission high school student, said the LeGare process could have been made less labor-intensive if information was provided to parents in more accessible formats. “There should be mandatory training to all families whose children receive autistic support, life skills support, and multiple disability supports in the Philadelphia School District,” she said. “All children, even those with disabilities, have the right to attend middle and high school alongside their non-disabled peers, thus accessing the curriculum, activities, and extracurricular activities and other experiences schools have to offer.”
Parents and students interested in taking part in the LeGare process should contact their school’s counselor for more information about eligibility, the application process, potential waivers, and deadlines.