CHIME – a Charter School with it’s Thinking Cap On

CHIME - A School With All the Bells and Whistles

Recently, Alejandra Delaporte of ABILITY’s operation in South America visited CHIME, a charter school in California’s San Fernando Valley that promises quality education for all. She spoke with Annie Cox, the executive director of Early Education Programs, and Erin Studer, executive director of Charter School Programs.

Alejandra Delaporte: Tell me a bit about how CHIME came to be.

Annie Cox: The CHIME Institute is a nonprofit organization that started back in 1990. Prior to that, we had secured a U.S. Department of Education grant from ’87 to ’90 through two California State University at Northridge (CSUN) professors; it allowed us to look at preschool inclusion. The question we were exploring was how to support young children with disabilities in a typical early education program, so we did our own initial assessments while providing services to the community, mostly in the San Fernando Valley area.

At the end of the grant, we found that there were not a lot of options for parents who wanted to send their children to an inclusive school; at the same time, there was research that supported inclusion for young children with disabilities.

Delaporte: Was this before the Americans with Disabilities Act or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

Cox: Yes. It was 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act began making sure that children with disabilities got an education. In the late ’80s, the word “inclusion” wasn’t even used; at the time we talked about “mainstreaming” children, especially in preschool. The rationale was that at that age they’re young, so why can’t they learn together? It kind of makes sense. By the time CHIME started, there was already some really good research saying: If it’s a high-quality early education program, it’s good for all kids.

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So after the grant ran out in ’90, the local school district didn’t have a lot of integrated—to use one of the words from that time—or inclusive options. So we started our preschool program. We’re on the CSUN campus, a training site for university students. We still do a lot of training, and we have observation rooms, where people can watch.

Delaporte: Observing so they can study the process?

Cox: Yes. It’s a laboratory preschool and training site, and we can have 10 people in an observation room, listening to what’s going on without coming into the classroom and disrupting the model.

Delaporte: Is it done with a one-way mirror?

Cox: Yes. We had high school students visiting, and they said, “This is just like CSI.” (laughs) In the room where the children are, the wall looks just like a mirror, but on the other side we can see through it, and listen with headphones. It’s great for parents, too, because kids can behave very differently at school than they do at home.

Delaporte: I’ve heard that schools convince some parents of children with disabilities that it’s not convenient for their child to be mainstreamed. The experience of observing what actually happens in the classroom must be very enlightening.

Cox: And revealing… For instance, if the child with the disability is the parents’ first child, they may think that an issue is disability-related, when it’s just a kid issue. It may just be about being three- or four-years-old, and to realize that really changes things.

“It’s okay, developmentally, that my child does this at this time.” Separation issues—any child that age might experience that. And it’s not to discount the fact that the child has special needs, but it’s to say, Okay, there’s a common denominator there.

We have a contract with CSUN to be a training site. So we have really strong connections with the university, and we are constantly being visited by people from other countries, as well as by teachers and administrators locally. We would like to have staff members dedicated to outreach, training and research.

Delaporte: Some teachers have the mind-set that including children with disabilities is going to be too difficult, so gathering their own evidence that inclusion works, is perfect. It seems that you could create YouTube—

Cox: —training modules, absolutely. And those are the kinds of things that we really want to do more of and formalize. We’re thinking about having an inclusion institute, maybe next year, where we announce: “Come and see our preschool, our infant and toddler program, come and see our charter school, and get the latest research and best practices in the field.”

By law, when you talk about creating the least restrictive environment in the US for children and families, this type of approach needs to be considered. But sometimes there either are administrators or teachers who have not had the experience with inclusion, and their lack of exposure gets in the way.

When we talk to families, it’s about creating a community where there is respect, understanding and a feeling that we’re all in this together. We are doing this because we care about each other’s children, we care about each other, and we know what is the best. Some of the research is showing that when you talk about a team approach or the co-teaching approach in general education and special education, everybody benefits.

For example, say there’s an occupational therapist coming in, and it may be about one target child in the classroom and maybe that child needs some modifications or some adaptations in the classroom. Well, very often, other children in the classroom benefit from those modifications, as well.

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Delaporte: What percentage of your students have disabilities would you say?

Cox: We want our programs to reflect the world, where about 15 percent to 20 percent of people have a disability. So depending on what statistics you use—say 15 percent— that’s roughly the percentage we’re going for in our classrooms.

Delaporte: If you have the right percentage set in a classroom, and another child acquires a disability, do you shift them out of that class?

Cox: No, we don’t. But you bring up an interesting point. Sometimes you talk to people and if they don’t know somebody with a disability, or if they haven’t encountered a person with one—usually in the form of a close relative—then they don’t know much about it. That has shifted a lot with university students.

I’ve been part of CHIME for over 20 years now, and at the beginning we talked to these young university students. “How many of you have had the experience of a person with a disability at school? Did you have any other students around you who had disabilities?” They’d say “those students” were in a different room, a different school, a bus that picked them up and took them to a different place. But that’s starting to change, as is the world.

Delaporte: Perhaps there is a feeling now that we have to do right by all of our children.

Cox: Right. And what do we do with our grandparents as they get older? What is our philosophy? I think there’s definitely a philosophical angle to these matters.

There’s also a good deal of research that says that kids who learn together also learn from each other, and for kids without disabilities, there is a social opportunity in terms of the friendships they form. Children don’t notice a difference. It’s not that we’re hiding the difference, but sometimes they just don’t focus on it. So-and-so just happens to have a wheelchair, and So-and-so just happens to talk with a voice-output device, and So-and-so is my buddy.

We had a little girl in our preschool program whose father passed away, and she was nonverbal with a diagnosis of autism. Coming to school was important for her, because home was a sad reminder of her loss. Still, once in a while, she would cry at school. So the other kids in the classroom figured out what her favorite song was, and sang it to her when she cried. Nobody taught them that. Yet somehow they figured out that if somebody falls down, you can help them back up. We see that beautiful side of human nature all the time.

Delaporte: And what a difference that will make when those children become adults, and interact with the world!

Cox: Some of the parents are working with us to make a new film about CHIME, and they were interviewing different kids and parents, and some of the parents found a common thread about belonging and being part of this family. They were using the word “family,” so the person working on the film said, “I think we should call it, `This Is the Way the World Should Be,'” (laughs) which was kind of cute.

Special education in this country came about because people with disabilities fought as a group for educational rights and parity. Putting students in a separate classroom is not transparent enough: What curriculum is being taught in that other classroom, and what is the message you are sending if you separate children at a very young age and then try to reintegrate them at 18 or 22 years old?

Delaporte: They won’t be used to each other, and they won’t have bonded as much as they would have, had they been educated together.

Cox: Yes, our approach benefits everybody. One of the interviews we did for the film was with a mom in our infant-toddler program who started a Mommy and Me group that didn’t have any kids with disabilities, but her son has a disability and she felt pressure for him to be like everybody else. She also felt bad that the situation wasn’t working out. So coming into our program, she relaxed, and her son relaxed, and she felt like: “This is going to be okay.”

Delaporte: Differences are not only accepted but rewarded.

Cox: Right. So that’s what we’re trying to do. When our preschool started in 1990, parents whose children reached kindergarten age were looking into an inclusive option for kindergarten and sometimes finding none. Every family was almost starting anew, and each family was a little bit different, and often lived at a distance from one another.

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Given that it is a large school district, some people tried to put the pieces together. A few were successful. Some were not. They asked, “Where do we go? What do we do?” And it brought families together. In fact, it was while standing in front of the preschool that parents, who were talking, talking, talking, got together with the founders of CHIME and decided to start a charter
school. That was in 2001.

Delaporte: If the law says that the public school system should have this integration already in place, who’s blocking it? Teachers? Administration?

Cox: That’s difficult to say. An Individual Education Plan always guides the process. So typically we do an assessment where we look at a child’s strengths and needs, and then we set goals for them, and discuss services and the placement that will be needed. But even when parents (or others) are pushing for integration, sometimes pieces of the puzzle are missing.

If the plan is not set up properly, then it might not work, and parents feel the pressure. For instance, the general education teacher might say, “I’m not sure what to do with this student. I need some help.” And what is the role of the special education teacher? Is it to stop by once a week? That might not be sufficient.

Delaporte: Do schools lack the financial resources to support children who may have more complex needs?

Cox: That’s part of it; families are offered a whole gamut of choices in terms of placement decisions—anything from nonpublic schools, which tend to be more intensive in their support of children with disabilities, to the regular classroom.

Sometimes schools simply tell families: “This is what we have to offer.” And families, feeling like it’s not enough, get disappointed. The process of finding the right fit can be tiring.

Delaporte: I guess not all schools are 100 percent convinced that inclusion is best, though research indicates otherwise.

Cox: Right. But again, integration requires getting enough resources, creating a team approach, and working together. For instance, we offer our services within the classroom environment, so speech, language and occupational therapy are happening right there in class, rather than pulling the child out and working with them in a room somewhere.

Let’s get Erin on the phone; he’s executive director of our Charter School Programs.

Erin Studer (on speakerphone): Hello?

Cox: Hi, Erin. I have Alejandra Delaporte from ABILITY Magazine; she wants to know: If the law supports the least restrictive educational environment, why is inclusive education not the norm? Perhaps you can weigh in on this.

Studer: Sure. To go back to the previous point about why everybody is not offering an inclusive education if it’s the law, part of the answer can be traced back to history, and how school districts first tried to approach implementing IDEA—the law that mandated a free and appropriate education for all students, including those with special needs.

Children all learn together at CHIME, including kids with and without disabilities.As schools tried to implement the law, they often took kids out of the classroom and provided the required services in a separate place. Whether they did it with the best of intentions or not, placing students with special needs in another room probably did make their general-ed classes easier to run. And now that that way of serving children with special needs is entrenched, we don’t see inclusive environments very often.

At CHIME, which is fully inclusive, we have between 15 percent and 20 percent of the students who have special needs campus-wide. We designed it that way with about 60 percent to 65 percent of the students typically developing, and 10 percent to 15 percent who are gifted or high-achieving, all learning together with their age-level peers. Everyone is provided the support they need in the classroom rather than being pulled out and served somewhere else. Every classroom has a general-ed teacher, a special-ed teacher and service providers who collaborate and consult with one another, providing their services through a team approach, with each playing a part in the child’s education.

Delaporte: Tell me more, if you will, about how the team works together.

Studer: Every classroom has a general education teacher, just like you’d find anywhere else. Then there will be a special-education co-teacher assigned to the room. The co-teacher won’t be there all the time, but comes in on a rotating schedule throughout the week to co-teach with the general-education teacher. Co-teaching is a big part of our philosophy. If you’re going to have an inclusive setting, it’s going to take lots of adults working together.

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There will also be paraprofessional aides in the classroom—other adults who are trained to help support the students in the classroom in whatever learning needs they might have. And then we have service providers who come in, like a language and speech specialist or an occupational therapist or a physical therapist. They come right into the classroom rather than pulling the student out to an office for an hour. The language-and-speech teacher comes into the classroom, observes the child in her natural educational setting, works with the teacher on different activities that the child could be doing to improve in areas of weakness, and also gives consultation to the paraprofessionals who are supporting the students on a daily basis. In that way, the children who need services, such as language and speech, are receiving the support from all the individuals on the education team throughout the week, and not just during some random hour.

Delaporte: Would the rest of the children be included in that activity?

Studer: They could be. For instance, our language-and-speech provider designs lessons around language and speech goals for some students in that classroom, but if you walked in in the middle of the session, you’d think that she was the teacher. That’s part of the co-teaching model. Everyone can play a part in the education of all the children in the room, regardless of whether they are
typically developing, gifted, or happen to be a child with special needs. Does that make sense?

Delaporte: Yes. Can you tell me about the later stages of school, when kids get to a point where they move to other systems. How does that work exactly?

Studer: That’s a good question. We are currently an institute that provides service from birth to age 14 for hundreds of kids every year. When it comes time for them to matriculate out of eighth grade, we work with all the families on finding the best environment for the child’s high school.

To guide families, we work extensively with the local high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and we work with other charter schools in the area. If the student happens to be a child with special needs, we’ll guide them through the IEP process. We also have public events for our parents where we talk about different high school options. Because so many of our kids have been successful at CHIME, they look for high schools that are also inclusive, or as inclusive as they can be in that particular local high school setting.

Now in our 11th year, we have a track record, and an understanding of how our graduates do, and they do quite well in about any setting they choose. We have students who go to their local high school of a couple thousand students or more, and those who go to a private school with a rigorous college-prep curriculum. We find that the way we’ve prepared them at CHIME helps them succeed wherever they go. But most of our eighth graders graduate and matriculate to lots of different settings throughout Los Angeles.

Cox: Let’s back up and explain what a charter school is.

Studer: The really broad context is that there were no charter schools in the US until 1991, when Minnesota passed a law allowing groups of teachers, parents and active citizens to be able to charter a public school that was mission-based, innovative and apart from what you’d find at your local comprehensive high school. And then different states started adopting that policy. It was really a big shift, and all of a sudden the right to use public funds to publicly educate children did not solely reside in the hands of local school districts. In our case, the mission is clear: We’re a model site for inclusive education.

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The big push for a lot of charter schools, originally, was to go into poor urban areas in American cities and create rigorous academic programs for socioeconomically disadvantaged children. And some of the big charter management organizations in the US, like the Knowledge Is Power Program, or the Green Dot or Alliance schools—they’re all kind of geared toward that notion of going into urban areas and creating college-prep curriculum on a K-12 level.

At CHIME, we certainly think we are making our children career- and college-ready as well, but our purpose is a little different. We want to provide a quality education that is inclusive to all children. And frankly, I think some of the other charter schools have been critiqued for not necessarily being as open to all students as they could be.

Delaporte: If they’re getting federal funds, aren’t they mandated to be inclusive?

Studer: They are, but here’s the thing—and this gets back to history and one’s philosophical perspective: One of the things about the federal law is that it requires schools to provide a continuum of placement and support options. I think that’s maybe even an exact line out of IDEA.

How you do that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll run inclusive classes. It could mean that you run what we would call a special day class, a specifically designed educational environment that caters only to certain children with special needs. You might go to a campus where they say, “We have a special class day for children with autism.” And you’d go to that classroom, and all 12 to 14 children in that classroom would be children with autism. That’s what we call a more restrictive environment. So while the law says that children must be educated in the least restrictive environment and to the fullest extent possible, sometimes schools will argue that the fullest extent possible for that child at this time is zero percent, and they have to be in a special day class.

Delaporte: But they can look here and see that the possibility exists!

Studer: We like to think so. (laughs) We do serve all different students with all different kinds of abilities and disabilities, and I think that while we are not perfect, we try to do it better every day. I joke that you always go to a charter school by choice; you don’t have to enroll here. We certainly do meet our goal of providing and creating an inclusive environment for 680 kids every day. So we must be doing something right.

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The families are clear about the benefits, and it’s not an untested model. There are other places in the country that also have inclusive programs, and the research supports that all the students, not just the students with disabilities, but all of them do better in an inclusive environment in all kinds of ways; academically, socially, relationships with one another and the school itself.

Studer: Have you taken a tour?

Delaporte: Are we going to be co-teaching today?


They say goodbye to Studer, and then Cox and Delaporte begin the tour.

Delaporte: You started off with 70 students?

Cox: In 2001, and now we have about 700 at the charter school.

Delaporte: What are some of your ongoing concerns?

Cox: Funding is a hot topic these days. The California economy is tough; there’ve been cuts to education. Out of the 50 states, California is 47th in terms of funding per child. So public school in California is not doing very well.

Delaporte: Is there a waiting list for children to get in?

Cox: Yes.

Delaporte: Because I saw a line outside.


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