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Harlem Charter School Bucks The Trend

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City charter schools are often criticized for not serving many special education students -- a trend one Harlem charter is looking to reverse. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

Charter school critics say many charters lure or "cream" the most motivated or easy to teach students away from neighborhood public schools, leaving the rest behind. But one Harlem charter has done just the opposite. More than half of the middle and high school students at Opportunity Charter School have special education needs -- a much higher percentage than at local public schools.

"I'd read a lot about charter school that cream or that look at specific types of students that they want, but at this school, that isn't even part of the calculation," said Opportunity Charter School Principal Marya Baker. "It's come to us and we will figure it all out together. It's not easy what we do, but we've been able to find that this is a model that works for us."

Last year, the city and state education departments questioned whether that model was working well enough for them. They put Opportunity on probation, renewing the charter for just one year instead of the standard three. That meant if students didn't make enough progress, the school might close.

"There's no doubt that part of the difficulty that Opportunity Charter School has is because they try to serve the hardest to serve kids," said Michael Duffy of the New York City Department of Education.

Officials say Opportunity still must meet the same high standards set for other charters, even though they welcome so many more students with disabilities.

Teachers and administrators say they worked hard this past year to prove they could move all their students toward graduation. They focused on individualized support with 120 staff members for just 400 students -- two teachers in almost every classroom -- a social worker, learning specialist and behaviorial manager for every single grade. And all that hard work has paid off.

On Tuesday, the DOE recommended the charter be renewed for the full three years.

"I think Opportunity Charter School has demonstrated that they are ready to get another few years to operate and show us what they can do," Duffy said.

The principal believes Opportunity is at the forefront of the charter school movement by using the flexibility charters have to serve the most needy students in the city. When the school's first class graduates this spring, many educators will be watching closely, hoping she's right.

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