Specialization or Segregation? NJ’s First Charter School for Autistic Children Already Faces Challenges

Newark's Forest Hill Charter School pushes the envelope as to what charters can be -- and charge

Approved last week, the Forest Hill Charter School in Newark has received much attention as New Jersey’s first charter devoted entirely to students with autism. It was singled out by Gov. Chris Christie as part of a new generation of autonomous schools.

A look at its winning 150-page application shows how it will change the way charters have operated here for the past 15 years, including a $55,000 tuition per child that puts it tops among all charter schools.

Still, for all its lofty goals, the school faces a host of challenges and questions before it will open in 2012, as planned. Its chief founder conceded there remain questions in how it will be paid for, and even where it will be located. Some have asked how it was even approved under current law.

None of that much fazes the founder, Michele Adubato, a 20-year veteran of Newark public schools and the daughter of Stephen Adubato, the city’s well-known North Ward power broker.

In her work with children with autism, including in Newark’s Regional Day School, Adubato said the field cries out for innovative programs that will serve families seeking new options and the taxpayers who pay for them.

The school already has a website detailing the plans and pressing the concept, with the subtitle: “A different way of thinking.”

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel it could be innovative” Michele Adubato said.

Praise and Criticism

Since its announcement as one of 23 new charter schools approved by the Christie administration, the largest class of new approvals yet, the Forest Hill Charter School has won both praise and criticism.

The praise has come from some advocates who cite the need for quality programs to serve what is the largest concentration of children with autism in the country. The school would start with 50 students, from kindergarten to seventh grade, and grow within three years to 80 students. It would serve Newark students first, and surrounding cities after that.

The critics have contended the exclusive setting created in the separate school only adds to New Jersey’s black mark as one of the nation’s most segregated states for special needs children.

In the days after the school’s approval was announced, leaders of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) issued a statement saying it may legally challenge the school as part of a broader lawsuit against the state for its failure to enforce federal and state policies that insist on educating children in the a “least restrictive environment.”

Diana Autin, SPAN’s co-director, said Forest Hill also appears to run counter to the state’s own charter school law — and broader discrimination laws — that prohibit a school from excluding a child on the basis of gender, race, religion or disability.

“We will be reviewing how a public school that is composed entirely of students with disabilities will be able to meet its legal mandate as a local
district to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment with their non-disabled peers,” said Autin.

Adubato boils at the criticism, saying that she believes in inclusionary settings for children with disabilities, but also points out the school would serve those with significant requirements that need the specialized setting.

“I don’t feel this is segregation but specialization,” she said. “In this context, this is the least restrictive environment for these children.”

“Of course, we’d love all students in a general education setting, and my goal is always to mainstream students,” Adubato continued. “But I believe in purposeful inclusion, not just inclusion for inclusion’s sake.”

Anti-Discrimination Issues

Whether the school would violate anti-discrimination laws is a trickier question that the application took pains to try to address. For one, such special education charter schools exist elsewhere in the country, with one group listing nearly 100 nationwide. And the application, despite its open enrollment requirements, said New Jersey’s law allows for such flexibility as well.

“It states that a ‘charter school may establish reasonable criteria to evaluate prospective students’ set forth in a school’s charter,” reads the application. “Criteria focused on students with autism and PDD [pervasive development disorder] would fall within this provision.”

Still, it’s clearly an issue with the state, too. Christie is proposing a rewrite of the state’s charter school law to specifically include language that would allow a focus on children with “individualized education programs,” a requirement of those classified as special needs.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for the state Department of Education said that did not prevent the state from approving this program all the same.

“The open enrollment provision of the state’s charter law does not preclude the department from approving charter schools with specializations,” said spokesman Alan Guenther in a brief statement.

A Year to Plan

That issue may not be germane until the school receives its actual charter, an event that doesn’t happen until it’s ready to open. In the meantime, the school is taking a so-called planning year, and there is much to do.

For one, it’s not decided where the school will be located and who will build it. State law prohibits public funds for facility costs, and the application says the school would be paid for by the North Ward Center, the headquarters of Steve Adubato’s social services empire — and some would say his political one, too. Michele Adubato now runs the center.

The application even came with an artist rendering of a modern two-story building, complete with solar panels on the roof.

But Michele Adubato yesterday said the details of the facility are not yet completed, including its location, although she said it would be in the North Ward.

“We are still working on that,” she said. “We want to build something from ground up. Newark has Science High School and Technology High. Why not a state-of-the-art facility for children with autism?”

Another question is the funding of the school’s daily operation. The application calls for a $2.7 million annual budget, just shy of $55,000 per each of the first 50 students. In terms of costs for full autism programs –including the proposed 3-to-1 student-teacher ratio — that amount is not unusual.

The application says the revenues would come from state and local charter school aid, as well as some federal aid. One of the state funds also steers additional funds for extraordinary costs, or those above $40,000 per child.

$1.2 Million in Extra Aid

Still, the application also seeks an additional $1.2 million a year in extra aid from Newark schools, a funding stream that Adubato said she has yet to receive assurance of. She maintained that the district easily spends that much for these children now.

“Of course we recognize that this hasn’t been done before, but the funding already exists,” she said. “The money is there.”

Efforts to reach Newark school officials yesterday were unsuccessful.
And when asked if an agreement had been reached with the local district, Adubato only said that the district had not opposed the application.

“They had a chance to criticize, and they sent the application through,” she said. “The budget was there. And I believe when all is said and done, we’ll be an economically viable option for Newark.”

Clarification: Michele Adubato, the chief founder of the Forest Hill Charter School, said the initial version of this story misrepresented her comments about the status of the funding for the new school’s facility. She said the North Ward Center, which she heads, has committed to funding the facility. The wording in two sentences was
changed to reflect that.