Special Ed. Advocates Call for Investigation Into Unlicensed Company Serving Charter Students

Originally published in Washington City Paper on December 19, 2018.
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There’s no sign on the small house on Minnesota Avenue SE—no way to know that this isn’t a home, but a kind of school, specifically meant for charter school students who are being transitioned between different parts of D.C.’s special education system. Tucked away in the Fairlawn neighborhood, the Future Family Enrichment Center has no website, no business license, and no known accreditation. That hasn’t stopped at least six D.C. charters from sending children there for interim instruction.

Federal law sharply regulates the teaching of students with disabilities. Teachers cannot subject special education students to repeated disciplinary action if their misbehavior is related to their disability. If teachers and parents determine that a special education student needs new arrangements, such as a transfer to a different school, the District must provide the student with access to a general education curriculum while those arrangements are being made. For some parents, that means homebound tutoring. D.C.’s traditional public school system also provides a dedicated school for this purpose, known as C.H.O.I.C.E. Academy. But some charters have looked to other options, including the Future Family Enrichment Center.

Now the Enrichment Center program is under scrutiny from city agencies. Advocates have expressed alarm over a number of features of the program, including the quality of services it provides and its lack of identifiable accreditation. Combined with its low profile, these characteristics have raised worries that, by placing students in the program, participating charters are keeping special education students “out of sight, out of mind.” Neither the Office of the State Superintendent of Education nor the Enrichment Center itself were able to confirm the exact number of charters using the Center’s services, meaning the actual figure may be higher than six.

Two weeks ago Maria Blaeuer, an attorney and program director with Advocates for Justice and Education, a DC nonprofit focused on helping parents of students with disabilities, contacted the DC Public Charter School Board with a range of concerns, which she described in an email.

Both OSSE and the PCSB have since launched investigations.

Blaeuer sent her email after learning about the experience a 5th grade student had at the Future Family Enrichment Center earlier this year. The student’s charter boarding school, Monument Academy, suspended him ten times between the start of the school year in mid-August and early October. All students in special education have what’s known as an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP, which is a document outlining how schools will appropriately serve a child with special needs. Students also have legally required IEP teams, and this student’s team consisted of three Monument representatives, his mom, and a parent advocate from the nonprofit So Others Might Eat. Together, following the tenth suspension, they determined that the child needed an alternative school to meet his needs. After an IEP team makes this kind of decision, OSSE has up to 45 days to help identify a school—known as a “non-public placement.”

According to the mother, Loretta Jones, and the parent advocate, Jennifer Fox-Thomas, Monument told Jones they would continue to suspend her son if necessary while OSSE looked for a non-public placement. Fox-Thomas responded that such warnings are illegal, because after ten suspensions, if it’s determined that a student is being disciplined due to problems caused by their disability, a school must find alternative ways to address the child’s problems during the 45-day transition. Monument recommended sending the student to the Future Family Enrichment Center, a move described to Jones as a “lateral placement.” Monument CEO Emily Bloomfield tells City Paper that her school intended the phrase as a synonym for “interim alternative educational setting”—which is a permitted temporary solution under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

“Because they told me they would keep suspending my son I felt as though I was forced into putting him in the lateral placement,” says Jones.

Bloomfield says that while state and federal law prevent her from commenting on specific cases directly, her school sees the facts and timeline of this situation differently.

The child began at Future Family Enrichment Center in mid-October, and Jones and Fox-Thomas describe growing increasingly concerned by the quality of instruction he was receiving. Jones says that when she first visited she found her son doing worksheets on a first and second grade level, and had to ask the program director, Sharon Holley-Ward, to provide him with more rigorous work.

Fox-Thomas says she made two visits to the program to check up on Jones’ son. “I spent ten years as a special educator and two years as a special education coordinator at a charter school, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “It was nothing but busy work.”

Fox-Thomas describes the child’s worksheets as ranging from a first-grade level to a seventh-grade level. “I think [Holley-Ward] just downloaded handouts and passed them out willy-nilly without any instructional plan. There was no consistency,” she says. “All these things were ungraded, there was no apparent teacher response, and I completely got the sense that this is what every student there was doing.” Fox-Thomas says she was told the Center relies  exclusively on Khan Academy web videos to deliver instruction.

Jones’ son finally began attending his non-public placement last week, though Fox-Thomas says it could have been sooner if Monument had handled some logistics more quickly. Fox-Thomas and Blaeuer prepared to file a complaint over this, and have a mediation with Monument scheduled for next month..

City Paper visited the Enrichment Center twice over the past two weeks. On the first visit, one student was there, and the director, Holley-Ward explained that she started her company less than a year ago after providing homebound tutoring services. Her goal, she said, was to provide a place for students who needed educational services to go, so they would not end up on the streets and potentially in jail.

“I’ve been a principal at a DC public school so what I do is when [charter schools] have a student who is suspended or expelled, while they wait to do a [nonpublic] placement, I provide them the academic services,” she said. “And that’s pretty much it.”

City Paper could not confirm what school, and what years, Holley-Ward worked as a DCPS principal. She is the founder of and pastor for Greater Faith Ministries, a church in Prince Frederick, Maryland. She lives in Port Republic, Maryland and also owns the Minnesota Avenue SE property, according to city records.

Holley-Ward says she keeps her program small, limiting it to no more than seven students at one time. It typically runs from nine in the morning to two in the afternoon, and she accepts all grade levels. She says her job is to make sure that schools stay compliant with IEPs, and that their website is under development.

“I don’t have ties or commitments with no schools, no charter, no nothing,” she said. “It’s just if they call me and they say ‘hey can you service a kid.’”

Holley-Ward shared her cell phone number and said to call back if this reporter had any more questions. Two days later, City Paper called back with some follow-up inquiries. Holley-Ward answered the phone and said to call back in two hours. She did not ultimately answer the follow-up call, and ignored other subsequent calls and text messages.

City Paper went back to the property on Monday to find out who exactly works there and what the qualifications of the staff are. Holley-Ward opened the door and at least four students stood behind her. She refused to answer questions, including about her credentials or those of her staff, and asked this reporter to get off her property.

Emily Bloomfield, the Monument CEO, says that while Monument officials had not visited the program, her charter had contracted with the Future Family Enrichment Center on the recommendation of their attorney, Lauren Baum, who knew of other schools that were satisfied with its services. “I think very highly of Lauren Baum,” says Bloomfield. “She’s someone who always points out what we should do to satisfy the spirit and letter of IDEA and what’s right for students.” City Paper learned of at least one other charter network—Cesar Chavez—that Baum has referred to the program.

Baum tells City Paper that she has also never visited the Future Family Enrichment Center, but heard about it from a charter colleague who had been pleased with the services rendered. “In my experience, schools are utilizing FFEC as an interim alternative educational setting in a way that is compliant with what the laws governing the education of students with disabilities allow,” Baum says.

Bloomfield explains to City Paper that Monument only uses interim alternative educational settings as a “last resort”, and that she believes the Enrichment Center provided “the services necessary for the student to make progress toward their IEP goals and continue to participate in the general education curriculum,” as required by federal law. Bloomfield refutes accusations that Monument has ignored or forgotten any child sent to the program, and says their special education coordinator checked in with Holley-Ward on at least a weekly basis to monitor student progress and ensure IEP goals were being met.

“Monument is not bypassing any rules through its use of FFEC,” Bloomfield says. “We chose this option because we were searching for a new alternative to homebound services.” Homebound services are another way to meet a student’s IEP goals if a child is suspended, expelled, or transitioning to a non-public placement. Tutors either come to the student’s home to provide instruction, or they meet in a public location like a library.

However, Bloomfield says that while a total of three Monument students have been sent to FFEC, her charter ceased its relationship with the program on Monday “in light of concerns recently shared about business licensing and related regulatory issues.”

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Last week, following Blaeuer’s email, representatives from OSSE and the Public Charter School Board visited the Future Family Enrichment Center and began reaching out to charter schools to learn more about their experiences with the program.

The PCSB declined an interview with City Paper, citing their recently launched investigation. “We’ll have more to say after that is completed,” says spokesperson Tomeika Bowden.

“OSSE’s top priority is the safety and well-being of all students attending public schools across the District,” says OSSE spokesperson Fred Lewis. “The agency is investigating the Future Family Enrichment Center and working with [local education agencies] to ensure they are following the alternative placement process to best serve students.”

It is not clear at this time how much money FFEC is earning from charter schools for its services. City Paper filed a public records request to review any contracts submitted to the PCSB, but the results of that FOIA are not due until January. However, the most recently available nonprofit tax filing for Somerset Prep DC Public Charter School listed the school paying the Future Family Enrichment Center $114,660 for special education services. Somerset Prep did not return a request for comment on this story.

OSSE has claimed unfamiliarity with the Future Family Enrichment Center, but Baum, the charter school attorney, tells City Paper that an OSSE administrative hearing officer “recently determined that, pursuant to federal and local law, the program was an appropriate interim alternative education setting for a student.” OSSE says that the hearing was adjudicating just one student’s situation, and that the hearing officer works for the Office of Dispute Resolution and is not an OSSE employee. Yet OSSE’s website describes the dispute resolution office as an OSSE subdivision.

Baum says that it is her understanding that the Enrichment Center’s services are provided “by certified and/or highly qualified staff in accordance with each student’s IEP.”

Fox-Thomas, meanwhile, struggled to determine the level of qualifications for those working at the Center, and does not think Holley-Ward has a teaching certification. Her biography on her church website lists her as having a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Maryland, and Masters’ in Social Work and Divinity, both from Howard.

What the law in D.C. requires for students to receive their entitled special education services is somewhat contested.

Lauren Onkeles-Klein, the director of the Juvenile and Special Education Law Clinic at the UDC Law School, says that D.C. charter schools have more leeway with some local regulations regarding education, “but the federal rights for students with disabilities apply equally to students in all public schools—DCPS and charters.” Onkeles-Klein says federal law requires that “highly qualified instructors implement a student’s IEP with fidelity,” but notes that the requirements “get a little mushy” when it comes to these alternative placements. “Kids must continue to receive educational services and supports that allow them to access the general education curriculum while making progress toward their IEP goals, but the educational setting they are provided may not be structured like their school, or like a school at all,” she says.

OSSE takes a somewhat different view. In 2016 it issued guidance that says that special education teachers in charter schools only need have bachelor’s degrees. By contrast, all DCPS special education teachers must have some sort of certification or license to work with students with disabilities.

Loretta Jones, the parent, tells City Paper she was upset by her recent experience and feels her son fell further behind academically than he would have if he had been welcome to stay at Monument before transitioning to a non-public placement.

For other charter school families, a program like Holley-Ward’s can offer a valuable alternative to homebound tutoring services. Sometimes parents are uncomfortable inviting tutors into their homes, or the tutoring hours don’t quite work out with their work schedules. Students enrolled in the traditional public school system have more options, because they can attend C.H.O.I.C.E. Academy, a DCPS school for at-risk students in grades 6 through 12 who are in a long-term suspension or expulsion status.

Onkeles-Klein has had experiences with the Future Family Enrichment Center, and says she’s seen how parents of students who are suspended may appreciate having somewhere safe for their children to go during the day other than staying at home or out on the streets.

“We wish there were more interim and also long-term options that are being offered for parents and caregivers and advocates to consider when children present a danger to themselves or others,” says Bloomfield.

Blaeuer says she was encouraged when the Public Charter School Board launched an immediate investigation into the program following her email. “We know that charter schools, especially smaller [ones], often struggle to provide the full continuum of placements required by the law for students with disabilities,” she says. “We hope that OSSE and the PCSB will work with parents and the charter school community so that students with disabilities have the same access to school choice as their non-disabled peers.”

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