CHIME Charter Middle School in Chatsworth is home to more than 200 disabled and gifted children, and according to the school’s principal, they’re a big part of what makes the school unique.
“Children that have disabilities don’t have to be segregated,” said Principal Renee Harvey. “We consider it (a) breach of (an individual’s) civil liberties.”
CHIME is one of many charter schools in the San Fernando Valley, but one of the few dedicated to integrating physically and/or mentally disabled children with highly gifted children, according to Harvey.
Charter schools are independent non-religious public schools that have equal access to resources as conventional public schools, said Colleen Sutton, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“Charters are basically public schools,” Sutton said. “They receive funding through the state of California.”
Funding, however, remains an issue for charter schools because they are not generally recognized as public schools, according to Sutton.
“There is a lack of funding (for charter schools),” Sutton said. “It is not a level playing field.”
Harvey also said funding for public schools is low.
“We feel California generally under-funds public schools,” Harvey said.
Charter schools are “high quality” alternatives to schools that are not completely assisting children, Sutton said.
“Maybe a child is failing and not getting the necessary assistance and attention (at a public school),” Sutton said. “Charters focus specifically on every child’s needs. They empower students to achieve academically.”
Sutton said teachers have the ability to be more creative with their lessons in charter schools. Greater attention is given to students because classes are smaller, she said.
The CHIME Institute at CSUN was founded in 1990 by Claire Cavallaro, chief of staff to President Jolene Koester, and Michele Haney, vice president of the board of directors for the institute.
CHIME started when Cavallaro wrote a federal grant request along with Joyce Hagen, former chair of the Special Education Education, in 1987 to include preschool children with disabilities into the traditional preschool program at CSUN, now called the Child and Family Studies Center.
“The purpose behind that was to develop a model of inclusion of preschool children with disabilities,” Cavallaro said.
Haney said the five-year grant helped organizers start the CHIME program at CSUN, which included written bylines proclaiming CHIME as a non-profit organization.
“At that time, it was very unusual to have children with disabilities (mixed) with children without disabilities,” Haney said. “We wanted to demonstrate that it was possible and a good thing to do.”
A number of factors encouraged the creation of both CHIME Charter Elementary in Woodland Hills and the middle school, Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro and Haney said parents wanted the preschool model of integration to continue on in their children’s education and encouraged them to start the elementary school in 1991.
“Philip Rusche (dean of the College of Education) listened to those parents. He thought it would be appropriate for faculty to work with parents to make the charter. (The purpose was) to create a public school with public funding, but be very innovative,” Cavallaro said.
That innovation involved taking the disabled children’s needs and potential into account.
“Parents didn’t want their disabled children to go to public schools without segregation. It was the parents more than anybody who pushed it,” Haney said.
Harvey said the CHIME middle school was a response to parents’ questions about what would happen to their children after they attended the integrated elementary school.
“(The middle school) came along because those same parents got nervous and said, ‘What about middle school?'” Harvey said.
Cavallaro also said motivation from faculty in the College of Education encouraged the creation of elementary and middle schools as a demonstration site for CSUN students who want to become teachers.
“They felt that it would be very useful to have this kind of model in a charter school for preparing our students to become teachers,” she said.
During its early years, the middle school was renting space from a church in Northridge. Cavallaro, Harvey and parents of prospective CHIME middle school students later purchased the land of the private school Santa Susana Academy in Chatsworth after receiving a state grant of $3.4 million, Harvey said.
The middle school houses no more than 28 students per class. Parent educators are available during class time. These individuals help children with disabilities understand assignments by modifying instruction so they can understand it better, Harvey said.
“They make sure the children with disabilities have the same materials as every other child,” Harvey said. “They help the children read and write. They put fewer items on a page so it is not too confusing for children.”
Most charter schools are not inclusive in the way that CHIME schools are, Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro said she feels that having CHIME’s mix of children is beneficial for CSUN students and for the school’s students.
“We have a large number of CSUN students who do observation and field work at CHIME,” she said. “Most children in CHIME schools are typically developing children.”
Cavallaro, Haney and Harvey said enrolling children with disabilities in schools with children without disabilities affects the students’ social response, and would make the CHIME schools different than traditional public schools.
At the elementary school, out of a class of 20 students, four of the children have identifying disabilities, Haney said.
“I think the most significant difference is the level of tolerance and caring,” Haney said. “We do include children of all types in the classroom. (They) are able to demonstrate that they can all grow.”
Cavallaro said that unlike other schools that offer fewer opportunities to students with disabilities to interact and learn from other students, CHIME schools allow students with disabilities to expand their skills by learning from other students.
“(The CHIME schools) provide an opportunity for modeling other students that have more advanced skills. Kids with disabilities have others to learn from and interact with,” Cavallaro said.
She said that an environment with children who have varying abilities affects academics.
“What we believe and what research has shown is that an environment where the focus is on disabilities is more challenging, more engaging and (richer) than programs geared specifically for students with disabilities,” Cavallaro said.
Haney said having the mix of children in a classroom is an opportunity to progress the social and emotional outcomes of all children.
Harvey believes that schools must stop blaming students if they are not learning well.
Harvey said that if a child chooses to go to her middle school, the federal funding that public schools get each day according to attendance follows that student.
“(Los Angeles Unified School District) has lost enrollment in its schools because No. 1, the high cost of housing, and No. 2 the opening of so many charters,” Harvey said.
Anyone can go to their local school board and petition for a charter to be opened in the community, Sutton said. Whether or not an individual or community gets the charter depends on their financial backing, their goals for the school and how they plan on attaining them, Sutton said.
“We need to be ready to teach whoever walks through that door,” Harvey said. “This is educational reform. We are challenging students and teachers to do better than the typical and traditional schools.”
Cynthia Ramos can be reached at email@example.com.