Charter Schools, Specialty Programs, and the Issue of Equitable Access

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

The lively discussion about equitable access to College Park Academy that took place during last month’s Board of Education meeting (beginning at 1:51:27 in the video) is must-watch TV—and not just for the moment when Board Chair Segun Eubanks told Edward Burroughs to “shut up and let the parliamentarian answer the question (at 1:54:50).”

Board Member Edward Burroughs (District 8) proposed amending the resolution granting a one-year extension to College Park Academy, a public charter school for students in grades six through nine which offers blended learning in partnership with the University of Maryland. Referring to the University of Maryland’s request that some slots be allotted to the children of University employees and to residents of College Park, Burroughs emphasized that all students, including “our most disadvantaged students,” should have access to the charter school, “not the select few, not those that come from the elite class in the county or in College Park.”

Burroughs’s amendment—which was adopted after a vote by the Board—adds the clause, “whereas the Board of Education wants to ensure equity and access for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or zip code,” to the language of the resolution.

Contributing to the conversation surrounding equitable access, Board Member Jeana Jacobs (District 5) raised the question of whether children with special needs were being well-served at the school: “You do a review of our special needs population that’s there. There is some suggestion that they’re encouraged to home school or go to their neighborhood school.” (For Jacobs’s remarks, go to 2:06:20 in the video.)

What do the numbers say? Are “our most disadvantaged students” well-represented at College Park Academy? Data from the 2015 Maryland Report Card suggest that College Park Academy serves disproportionately few students needing special services, particularly when compared with the six closest neighboring middle schools (see map of area school locations here).

The table below shows the percentages of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs), who have limited English proficiency (LEP), and who receive special education services, respectively, at the seven schools listed.


Percentages of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals, with Limited English Proficiency, receiving special education. An asterisk (*)  is used to indicate fewer than ten students in a category1. Source: 2015 Maryland Report Card, “Students Receiving Special Services”

But the issue of equitable access to special programs reaches far beyond College Park Academy or any single school in Prince George’s County.

In the table below, I have listed Prince George’s County’s public middle schools (including schools who also serve elementary or high school students), in ascending order, according to the percentage of middle school students receiving free and reduced meals2. The percentages of students with limited English proficiency and elementary students receiving special education are also given in the table. Public charter schools are highlighted in the table in red, specialty programs (i.e. French Immersion, Montessori, performing arts) are highlighted in dark grey3, and talented and gifted (TAG) centers are highlighted in green. Data source is the 2015 Maryland Report Card.

It is clear from the data that charter schools and specialty programs tend to serve fewer students who qualify for FARMs and, in many cases, fewer students receiving special education. In addition, English language learners (i.e. LEP students) are almost entirely absent from charter and specialty schools, with most schools showing an asterisk (*) indicating fewer than ten students in the LEP category.


A related post , which looked at the 2014 data on elementary schools, was published on this blog last year.

The Maryland Report Card gives this explanation for the asterisk appearing in the table:

‘*’  indicates no students or fewer than 10 students in category, or ‘*’ indicates the percentage for the category is either ≤5 or ≥95 and the corresponding counts have been suppressed.

2The Maryland Report Card disaggregates data on special services by grade band. For schools that serve both elementary and middle grades students, the percentages of students qualifying for special services in the elementary and middle grades are given separately.
3Benjamin Foulois Performing Arts Academy and the Thomas G. Pullen School are both K-8 schools with performing arts specialty programs. All students gain admission through the lottery and/or audition. In contrast, Hyattsville Middle School has a creative and performing arts specialty program, but it is also an assigned neighborhood school. (See PGCPS’s School Finder website.)

One thought on “Charter Schools, Specialty Programs, and the Issue of Equitable Access

  1. Roz Johnson says:

    There has never been a question that “equitable access and entry” to charter schools in our county has been far less accessible to children with special need and children who come from circumstances of poverty. In this County, Parents of children from a higher socio-economic level see “charter schools” as a way to have the children to receive private schooling on the public dime. As a Board Member for six years, I usually opposed Charter Schools. CMIT, in Laurel was the only one that I approved, but only after an exhaustive review of the curriculum and the demographics for the school.


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