by Brian Washington
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As if the mother of an eight-month-old and a seven-year-old isn’t busy enough, Amanda Ceide of Malden, Massachusetts, is also fighting charter school expansion in her state.
She wants residents to know how her son with special needs was emotionally traumatized while enrolled at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School.
Ceide says voters need more facts before they head to the polls in November, when a measure to lift the state’s cap on charter schools will be a ballot question.
This ballot measure is being funded by venture capitalist firms,” said Ceide. “It’s not about what’s in the best interest of all students.
Charter schools are funded using public tax dollars but are managed privately. They are not held to the same standards as traditional public schools.
If voters approve Question 2, Ceide believes it will lead to more charter schools where minority and special needs students, like her son, who is both, face a disproportionate number of suspensions for minor, non-violent offenses. She also thinks it will create an education system where financially strapped public schools struggle to meet the needs of our most vulnerable kids.
Charter school nightmare
During the 2014-15 school year, Ceide enrolled her son Kiernan, who was five-years-old at time, in kindergarten at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter school. She did so despite warnings from educators at his pre-school, who indicated that, because of her child’s special needs, Mystic Valley might not be a good fit for him and he would be better served by his local public school.
“I said nope, this is going to work out and he’s going to get a wonderful education,” said Ceide.
Things did not work out. Kiernan, who is diagnosed with ADHD and sensory processing problems, was suspended six times in three months. His ADHD made it hard for him to sit for long periods of time, and, as a result of his sensory disability, he was often overwhelmed by the loud sounds commonly found at school.
“He never felt like he could succeed. He was always being told no and you have to stay in your seat,” said Ceide. “When you’re constantly being told no, as a five-year-old, you’re not getting the positive reinforcement you need to feel successful and that you’re a good person.”
In Massachusetts, charter schools are not legally required to hire licensed teachers or anyone formally trained in early, secondary, or special education. Ceide believes the school was not equipped to adequately educate and nurture her son.
“It went from him not staying in his seat to him screaming at the top of his lungs because he doesn’t know what else to do,” said Ceide. “He was being put into a small room, the ‘time-out room’, and he’d be screaming and clawing the space. Then he’d get suspended.”
But as excessive as her son’s suspensions sound, Ceide says she has heard of a lot worse.
I have met (charter school) parents who have kids who were suspended 16 times in four months.
Charters and high suspension rates
The average suspension rate for schools is Massachusetts is 2.9 percent. However, at several charter schools within the state, the rate is much higher, and suspensions are disproportionately directed at disabled and minority students.
For example, the Roxbury Preparatory Charter suspended 40 percent of its students last year, including 57.8 percent of students with disabilities and 43.5 percent of black students. The City on a Hill Charter School in New Bedford suspended 35.4 percent of its students, including 50 percent of students with disabilities and 52.9 percent of black students.
Ceide has joined forces with current and former charter school parents and the Save Our Public Schools campaign to protest such practices. They’ve delivered a letter to state education leaders asking for more data on how excessive suspensions impact students and their families.
If Question 2 is approved
Ceide, who pulled her son out of Mystic Valley after roughly six months, reports that he is now thriving at his local public school.
“The accommodations he needs are being put into place, and whenever things aren’t working we come together as a group to see what we can try next and see what works,” said Ceide, who said this was not the case at Mystic Valley, which, she says, uses a “top-down” model when it comes to interacting with parents.
Ceide, who says she felt like she was bullied into accepting her son’s treatment at Mystic Valley, has learned first hand how charter schools are unaccountable to the taxpayers who fund them and the communities they serve. She’s now concerned that if Question 2 is approved, more special needs and minority children attending charter schools will experience what her son went through.
Question 2 would also cost local school districts a lot more money. Existing charter schools already cost public schools more than $400 million a year. If Question 2 passes, that could mushroom to more than a $1 billion annually in just six years.
Ceide adds it will eventually lead to a two-tier education system, where charter schools, like Mystic Valley, which has what seems like an Olympic-size swimming pool, get ample resources, leaving public schools struggling to meet the needs of their students, including those facing challenges like her son.
“The truth needs to be exposed,” said Ceide. “People think having more choice and having this capitalistic mindset is very American, but it’s a threat to democracy when you are not educating all children adequately.”