Non-Classroom-Based Charter Schools and Special Education FAQs

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What are Independent Study schools and Non-Classroom-Based charter schools?

Independent study is a different way of learning - it is an alternative instructional strategy for providing regular education from kindergarten through adult education. Independent study students take the same courses as students in regular classes. Each student is guided by a teacher but generally does not take daily classes with other students. As the name suggests, each student works independently.

California law authorizes charter schools to provide independent study programs through non-classroom-based instruction, such as online and distance learning. Because independent study programs may be well suited for some students who have health problems or whose needs cannot be met in a traditional classroom setting, student with special needs are increasingly turning to independent study charter schools for alternatives to traditional public school options.

Must Independent Study and Non-Classroom-Based charter schools accept students with Individualized Education Programs?

Like all charter schools, independent study charter schools are public schools that are open to all students who may choose to enroll - including those with special needs. Because public schools, including charters, may not deny admission based on disability, charter schools operated non-classroom-based or independently study programs must accept students with special needs who enroll or are admitted through the lottery.

How should Independent Study and Non-Classroom-Based charter schools support students with exceptional needs?

While all charter schools are required to accept students with exceptional needs, there are special considerations for charter schools that exclusively operate independent study programs. In order for a student with exceptional needs to participate in an independent study program, California Education Section 51745(c) requires that his or her individualized education program (IEP) specifically provide for this type of program. Before a charter school may provide an independent study program to a student with an IEP, the independent study program must be offered as part of student's "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) in the IEP and consented to by the student's parent (or the student, if over 18 years of age).

If a student enrolls in a independent study charter school and the student's existing IEP does not provide for independent study or non-classroom-based instruction, then the charter school must convene an IEP meeting to discuss the student's needs and determine whether independent study is appropriate for the student. If the IEP team determines that independent study is appropriate, then the school may offer the program as FAPE for the student by including in the IEP and obtaining parental consent. Often, special arrangements will need to be made to provide any necessary related services and supports. The availability of related services and supports should be considered when discussing the appropriateness of an independent study or non-classroom-based program, as should the methods and feasibility of monitoring the student's progress on IEP goals. If a student needs additional structure, supports or services that cannot be made available in through an independent study or non-classroom-based program, then the program may not be appropriate for the student.

If the team determines that independent study is not appropriate for the student, then the team should discuss and offer alternative program options. Because the school district bears the legal responsibility to make an appropriate offer of FAPE, the charter school should work with the school district or SELPA to offer the program and placement that they believe is appropriate for the child - even if the student's parents might disagree. The most important consideration in making the offer of FAPE should be the best interests of the student, and the offer of FAPE should be contingent on whether the program is appropriate for the student and not whether the student is appropriate for the program.

Who is responsible for providing appropriate services, supports, and placements for students with exceptional needs who enroll in these schools?

In California, charter schools have two options for the delivery of special education services:

  1. Maintain status as an "arm of the district" or "school of the district" for special education services
  2. Become Local Education Agency (LEA) for special education services

Because the responsibility for providing a "free appropriate public education" for students with exceptional needs rests with the LEA, the determination of who is ultimately responsible for providing appropriate special education services to charter school students depends upon which of the above service delivery options a particular charter school has elected.

If the charter school is operating as a school of its authorizing school district for purposes of special education, the district remains the LEA and is responsible for ensuring that special education services are delivered to students of the charter school in the same manner as the traditional district schools. The charter school and district must work together to identify and provide an appropriate educational program for students with exceptional needs who enroll in the charter school. If a student is participating in an independent study program and requires additional supports and services in order to benefit from his or her education, then the district must provide these services for the student or provide the charter school with a portion of special education funding in order to so. Likewise, if the IEP team determines that independent study is not appropriate for the student, the district and charter school must work together to offer and provide an appropriate program and placement for the student.

On the other hand, a charter school that has elected to become its own LEA for special education assumes full responsibility for providing quality and compliant special education programs and services, while ensuring that all eligible students receive FAPE as required by law. This means that the charter school is responsible for providing supplementary and related supports and services to all students who may require such services - despite geographical or other barriers. In addition, in cases where the IEP team determines that an independent study or non-classroom-based program is not appropriate for a particular student, the charter school is responsible for identifying and providing an appropriate program or placement for the student. As the law is currently written, these responsibilities apply to all charter schools who elect to operate as LEAs for special education - even where those charter schools offer exclusively non-classroom-based independent study programs. However, in some cases, the charter school may be able to work with the special education local planning area (SELPA) in which it is a member to provide services or placements not generally available through the school.

How should IEP progress be monitored for students in Non-Classroom or Home-Based programs?

Special arrangements will likely need to be made to monitor progress of students with exceptional needs participating in non-classroom-based independent study programs. In addition to collecting work samples and conducting routine assessments, a number of innovative options may be used to monitor progress of students. For example, staff may meet with a student at the school's office or a local library, where appropriate, to work directly with the student and obtain information on the student's progress. Technology such as video-conferencing and other online programs may also be used to conduct assessments, collective assignments, and observe progress.

What specific credentialing requirements and limitations apply to teachers of students with exceptional needs in Independent Study and Non-Classroom-Based programs?

The same credential requirements apply to independent study programs as apply to classroom based programs. For detailed information on special education credential requirements, please consult the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

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