Belkys Vigil thought the Bridgepoint Academy charter school would be a good fit for her son David, an energetic kindergartner with autism.
School administrators thought differently.
During a tour of Bridgepoint, Vigil was told the school had no specialist for children with disabilities, nor could it provide the special education services to which David is legally entitled.
Vigil then called Somerset Academy, another charter school in Southwest Miami-Dade. But an employee there told her that the school didnt have the resources her son would need, she said.
I would cry because it was constant rejection, Vigil said. Nobody wanted to take my son.
From South Dade to the northern reaches of Broward County, only a handful of students with profound disabilities make it into charter schools, according to a Miami Herald/StateImpact Florida analysis of student enrollment data. The trend holds true across the state, where 87 percent of charter schools dont serve any students with the most intense support needs.
Charter school operators say the students are often better off in private or district-run schools that have special education expertise. Though Somerset says it encourages all students to apply and that whoever answered Vigils call must have misspoken Bridgepoint Principal Maria Saunders said her small charter school does not have the capacity to serve children with severe autism.
Charter schools do not have the infrastructure and economies of scale to provide special programs to meet the needs of those children, said Michael Kooi, director of school choice programs at the Florida Department of Education.
Still, the trend is troubling to advocates of children with disabilities, who say charter schools are legally obligated to admit and educate students with the most intense support needs. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, and must abide by anti-discrimination laws and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. State law also says that students with disabilities shall have an equal opportunity of being selected for enrollment in a charter school.
Charter schools were supposed to provide a choice for parents, said Isabel Garcia, executive director of Parent to Parent of Miami, a nonprofit organization that provides support to families with special needs children. Unfortunately, charter schools are not a choice option for children with disabilities.
When it comes to children with less acute disabilities such as learning disorders, South Florida charter schools enroll numbers proportionate to the local school districts.
Yet in Miami-Dade, only two out of 109 charter schools serve children with more profound disabilities like autism and cerebral palsy. One is a specialized school for children with developmental delays, the other for children with autism.
In Miami-Dades traditional public school system, 59 percent of schools serve students with the most intensive support needs, records show.
In Broward County, 9 percent of charter schools enroll students with the greatest support needs, compared with 80 percent of traditional public schools, according to a school district enrollment analysis.
The trend has also been observed in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where the few children with intense support needs who are in charter schools are clustered in schools that specialize in their disabilities.