San Diego Cooperative Charter School Excels in New San Diego Unified Special Education Structure

October 28, 2013

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The San Diego Cooperative Charter School (SDCCS) was founded by a group of parents and teachers in 2002. Since then, the school has grown to over 450 students in grades K-8. SDCCS is known for its collaborative culture, diversity, and a focus on all families participating in the education of their children. In addition, SDCCS places a high value on the full inclusion of all students, including those eligible for special education services. To do this, SDCCS relies on a talented and passionate instructional staff who believe in the school's philosophy.


Challenges with the Prior Structure

Prior to 2013-2014, as a "school of the district" for special education, SDCCS had no control over the specialized staff provided to them by their authorizer, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). In addition to challenges with getting consistent support staff, SDCCS had no control over the length of time that any particular specialist would remain with their school. The inconsistency meant that specialized staff would often miss the weekly staff meetings that are fundamental to the instructional team's ability to manage the needs of all students in their inclusive setting. When a district staff member engaged with the philosophy of the school's program, according to Principal Wendy Ranck-Buhr, "they would love it and want to stay, but they would get moved on because of the way the district moves its employees." The inconsistency was frustrating for Ranck-Buhr's staff, and potentially educationally harmful for her students. Paying for district special education services and spending time to manage the district staffing process was estimated to cost SDCCS hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Working Towards a New Option

Through the 2012-2013 school year, Ranck-Buhr says that she "refused to give up on the relationship with the district" as she pursued a solution. SDCCS teamed up SDUSD staff, other charter leaders, and staff from the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) to develop and pilot a new arrangement that has come to be known as "Option 2" for special education in San Diego charter schools. "Option 2" was designed to provide charter schools with increased flexibility and autonomy for providing special education services for their students without forcing them to seek LEA status for special education in another area of the state. The restructure in SDUSD allows the district to retain a portion of the special education funds they receive on behalf of SDCCS for administrative costs and the creation of a risk pool, while passing on the majority of funds directly to the school site. SDCCS is now responsible for using those funds to provide appropriate services for all students that enroll in the charter. SDCCS is no longer dependent on the district for staffing.

Schools who join "Option 2" receive a portion of state and federal special education funding to provide services that are necessary for students with disabilities enrolled in the school.  

"It took a lot of people being brave about doing the right thing for students," says Ranck-Buhr. She credits district staff, CCSA, local charter leaders and her own team for taking a risk and finding an arrangement that works for everyone.


As a result of this new option, SDCCS can now hire specialized staff who are committed to the school's program, and ensure that school policies and practices are implemented faithfully. Ranck-Buhr is able to empower her specialists to manage their own classroom aides, and all of her staff now attend the school's weekly planning meetings together. Further, all staff now use uniform outlines for IEPs and meeting agendas, which vastly improves the cohesion and consistency of the school's inclusive program. Critically, SDCCS estimates hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, not including the administrative time that Principal Ranck-Buhr can now spend with her team.

School staff and parents are excited to monitor the results of this new arrangement. Family surveys and student academic outcomes will be used to measure and continually improve the program.

CCSA is proud of the partnership between SDCCS and San Diego Unified School District, and is optimistic that this arrangement will empower other schools and districts to continue working together to serve all students.

Learn more about San Diego Cooperative Charter School.

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