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New, $10M special-ed school for Philly kids draws fire

The initial plan was for the Philadelphia School District to award up to $54 million to a private provider to run a new special-education school for up to 600 students in the city. A scaled-back proposal, which would cost $10 million for 100 students, still has detractors.

The School Reform Commission, including Chair Joyce Wilkerson (right) is scheduled to vote Thursday, July 6 on a $10 million proposal to start a new special-education school in the city.
The School Reform Commission, including Chair Joyce Wilkerson (right) is scheduled to vote Thursday, July 6 on a $10 million proposal to start a new special-education school in the city.Read moreCHARLES MOSTOLLER / For the Inquirer

After an outcry from parents, advocates, and politicians, the School Reform Commission last month shelved a decision to spend up to $54 million to establish a school for up to 600 Philadelphia special-education students now attending private schools on the school system's dime.

On Thursday, the SRC is scheduled to consider a scaled-back contract — $10 million for 100 students — but it is still drawing fire.

Opponents' initial concern, they said last month, was that the Philadelphia School District was essentially building a segregated school.

The intent, school officials said, was to get city students out of placements in Wordsworth, a private provider that lost its license to operate a residential school after a teenager in its care died in a struggle with staffers. The teenager's death was ruled a homicide. The SRC ended its contract with Wordsworth, which has filed for bankruptcy, on June 30.

School officials also aimed to create more options for the hundreds of Philadelphia children with complex behavioral, emotional, and learning needs. Some of them are now on waiting lists for spots in private placements outside of the city; the district had hoped to have options for them closer to home.

The district will save millions by bringing the services in-house — it had spent $58,000 per student on the Wordsworth placement; the contract will cost about $35,000 per student, though finances are not the reason for the shift, said Cheryl Logan, the district's academic chief.

If the more modest plan passes Thursday, the SRC would hire Catapult Learning Inc. to educate 100 students beginning in September, with an eye toward training district personnel to staff and run the school eventually. The program would be housed inside existing district buildings.

The new SRC proposal, arrived at after dialogue with advocates and City Council, cuts costs, allows for fewer students, calls for stricter monitoring of Catapult, and makes plainer its intentions — "to serve Philadelphia resident students in a less restrictive environment than their current placement."

The new resolution is better, some said, but there are still concerns, some parents and advocates say,  about Catapult, about safeguards for potential expansion, and about whether the district should be spending its money on private providers to begin with.

In a letter sent to the SRC on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates said the new proposal "falls short" and ought to be rejected unless further modified.

Estelle Richman, an SRC member and former state Department of Public Welfare secretary, was alarmed by the initial proposal, which she said "looked like they were continuing to isolate youngsters in a segregated classroom environment." Richman is more comfortable with the new language, but still has some questions about Catapult specifically and about the district's reliance on private providers generally. She was unsure Wednesday whether she would support the resolution.

Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center who had raised initial red flags, said she appreciated the district's movement on the issue.

But, she said, "we still have significant concerns with the proposal, and we think it falls short."

Special-education advocates think a three-year contract is too long, McInerney said, and they have questions about Catapult itself. They wonder why the contract was presented with so little notice, and want to make sure parents of children with special needs have adequate time and notice to make decisions, and they want to know what will happen with children on waiting lists for private placements.

But mostly, McInerney said, advocates don't think this funding is best spent building a separate program.

"It's our view that many of those students could be served if funding was allocated for resources to support students in more inclusive settings in their neighborhood schools," she said.

Logan stressed the new program would serve children whose education plans require such intense supports that they are not now in schools with typical peers. She said under the new setup, children might be able to spend part of the day in a general-education school, or participate in extracurricular activities there, an impossibility in the past.

"Having children in an integrated setting is something we all want," said Logan. "We want children to be in a place that's safe and nurturing and meets their needs."

City Councilman Derek Green, who spearheaded a Council push to condemn the old resolution, said he was grateful for the changes and understood that the district's back was against the wall with the Wordsworth contract ending.

"I still have concerns," said Green, a father of a child with special needs who attends a city public school. Namely, he isn't sure about Catapult, and worries about how the district will hold meetings with 100 parents and special-education teams between now and the end of the summer, let alone get a new school program up and running.

Calls to Catapult, based in Camden, were not returned.

Tonya Bah, a parent of two children with autism now educated in district schools, said she remains outraged by the proposal, even the toned-down version: If the district has millions to spend, why isn't it spending it on keeping kids fully integrated? And why was the proposal brought up with no notice to advocates?

"This is the perfect example of what happens when you don't have a seat at the table," said Bah. "Our kids will be vulnerable again."