An education advocacy group sued a Philadelphia charter school on Thursday, alleging it barred a 6-year-old from enrolling after learning she required services for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.
The Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School in July accepted the girl for first grade this fall, according to the lawsuit brought by the Education Law Center. But when she and her mother, Georgette Hand, went to the school later that month with her documents, Veronica Joyner, the school’s founder and chief administrative officer, said she could not enroll the child because of her special needs.
Joyner told Hand the school “did not have the class or teacher to provide the services required" by the girl’s Individualized Education Plan, which specifies how schools must meet her needs, according to the lawsuit filed in Common Pleas Court Thursday. The suit seeks to have the girl immediately enrolled at the charter and awarded “compensatory education services” for the time she was excluded from the school. It also asks the court to order the school to include students with disabilities, and to contract with a provider to train staff on inclusion and diversity.
Margie Wakelin, a staff attorney for the Education Law Center, called the case “explicit” discrimination.
"A lot of families are looking for school options and have children with disabilities” and don’t realize that charter schools can’t discriminate, Wakelin said.
Joyner said that it’s a misunderstanding and that the charter will admit the girl. She acknowledged talking to Hand. But Joyner said she didn’t realize that Hand’s daughter had already been accepted to the charter school.
“She’s explaining to me, the child is in the public school but she’s not happy,” Joyner said. “I’m advising her, as I usually do … ‘if she’s not pleased, go across the street.’ " Joyner’s school is located at 447 N. Broad St., across from school district headquarters.
Joyner also said she never reviewed an IEP or any documents for Hand’s daughter. She said that when the law center contacted the school, it didn’t provide a copy of the girl’s acceptance letter.
Wakelin called Joyner’s comments “really unbelievable.” The law center has been trying to get the girl into the school since early September, she said, and initially received no response.
“Then the response was, she wasn’t accepted," Wakelin said. "We immediately provided the letter.”
The situation involving Hand’s daughter isn’t the only issue. The charter has a “glaringly low” percentage of students with disabilities, Wakelin said.
MCSCS, which opened in 1999, enrolls 984 students in grades 1 to 12. In 2017-18, 6% of its students had an IEP, compared to 18% in other Philadelphia charters, and 14% in district schools, the lawsuit says.
Joyner attributed the low percentage to the school’s model. “We start immediately tutoring children,” she said. “They’re able to catch up.”
Wakelin said that was “not a valid response."
Many disabilities “are not ones that you will just catch up with," Wakelin said. “That is the thing that’s most concerning about what she’s saying — it’s almost like she’s trying to get rid of disabilities within her population.”
The Education Law Center isn’t alone in taking issue with the school’s special education practices. The Philadelphia School Board renewed the charter for five years Thursday night, but with 19 conditions — including that the school be overseen by a “special education master."
The master will be paid for by the charter and will direct a “complete overhaul” of its special education program, Christina Grant, interim chief of the district’s Charter Schools Office, told the school board. In reviewing the charter for its renewal, the office rated it noncompliant in every special education category.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. While they are required to be open to all students — with certain geographic exceptions; some charters are approved to admit students from specific neighborhoods — the schools have faced questions about their enrollment practices.
In a report earlier this year, the Education Law Center said Philadelphia’s charter schools that draw from across the city enrolled fewer students with severe disabilities than district-run schools, among other disparities.
Hand’s daughter’s disability is not severe: Her IEP requires just an additional 45 minutes per month of learning support, Wakelin said.