As Noble has grown, so too has the number of its students with identified disabilities.
Five years ago, when the charter network ran just eight campuses, fewer than 12 percent of its students had individualized education programs (IEPs), according to CPS data. Today Noble has twice as many campuses, and more than 15 percent of its students have IEPs, which mirrors the district’s rate for high school students overall.
The network’s mostly black campuses have higher proportions of students with special needs than do its older, predominantly Latino campuses. At Baker, in South Chicago, nearly one out of every four students has an IEP.
Noble’s critics say the network does not take in students with as many needs as do district-run schools. Fewer than one-quarter of Noble’s students had IEPs that required services for more than 20 percent of the school day, according to data from the 2013-2014 school year. By comparison, 44 percent of students with IEPs in high schools across the district required that level of services.
But network officials say they accept all students, regardless of need, and provide the legally required services. They describe their approach as inclusive — usually they assign special needs students to regular classrooms that are co-taught by a regular and a special education teacher.
Still, some families are discouraged from sending their children to Noble because it does not offer cluster programs for students with more severe needs, such as autism, that are offered elsewhere in the district.
Another concern: teachers’ level of experience. Many of Noble’s special education teachers come from the Teach for America training program and are working toward their full credentials.
In Illinois, teachers at regular and charter schools must be licensed and have a special endorsement in order to teach children with special needs. About a quarter of Noble’s special education learning specialists, case managers and directors of special education have not yet earned the credential and are working under a provisional certificate.
Noble officials say the charter network relies on Teach for America for so many of these positions because of the limited pool of qualified special education teachers in Illinois.