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Charter Schools - Update Regarding "Mystery Parent" and other Access and Equity Initiatives

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
June 12, 2015


The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) is committed to ensuring that all eligible students have access to seats in current and new charter schools and expects charter schools to provide services in an equitable manner. In the spring of 2013, the Department explicitly incorporated access and equity within the Charter School Performance Criteria and launched a variety of access and equity initiatives, which continue into this school year. These initiatives are summarized in my charter school authorizing overview memo from October 2014. This memorandum provides an update on several of these initiatives.

"Mystery Parent" Initiative

As part of ongoing efforts to assess Charter School Performance Criterion #2: Access and Equity, the Department continued its "mystery parent" initiative during the 2014-2015 school year. The mystery parent initiative, inspired by retail operations that use a "mystery shopper" to test operations, was first piloted during 2013-2014. Department staff members called Commonwealth and Horace Mann charter schools statewide. Through these random and unannounced contacts with schools, callers verify that students with high levels of needs are provided with equal and unfettered access to information about each school's application and enrollment process.

Department staff made calls to all charter schools. Callers asked about enrollment options for either students with disabilities (SWD) or English language learner (ELL) students. Each school received three telephone calls, and all but one of the calls occurred prior to the school's application deadline. The Department used the information about lottery dates and application deadlines noted in each school's annual report to complete calls in a timely manner. After completion of each call, callers completed a brief survey to identify both positive and negative observations.

The Department reviewed the results of the calls to determine if follow-up was needed with individual schools. Numerous schools gave callers descriptions of the systems of supports their schools have for students with disabilities. Callers also noted that most schools were responsive and gave helpful information about both the school and the enrollment process. Out of 80 charter schools, only five schools required follow-up regarding concerns noted. For these schools, callers reported that they were given incorrect information, were told either "I don't know" or "I think", or that the staff member at the school was unaware of how the enrollment process worked. In addition, the Department contacted six schools to discuss the unavailability of a "live" person after several attempts to reach someone at the school. The Access & Equity working group convened jointly by the Department and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association last year had requested that we provide feedback to schools regarding "live" person availability.

In general, based on this year's calls, the Department has few concerns regarding equal and unfettered access to information about charter school application and enrollment processes for high-need students. Accordingly, for the next school year, the Department anticipates continuing mystery parent calls only when complaints or other related issues arise at particular charter schools. The Department will evaluate the need for additional "mystery parent" calls based on data regarding the recruitment and retention of high-need students at charter schools.

New Resources for Students

In the summer of 2014, the Department awarded a contract to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) for 2014-2015 to implement a project to help all charter schools build capacity to establish programs for low incidence/high need students with moderate to severe disabilities and to support and serve students with behavioral needs more effectively. This project has been well received by participating charter schools. I am pleased to report that, due in part to this project and other work in partnership with the Department, MCPSA was recently awarded a national leadership activities grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The award provides $2 million to create the Massachusetts Charter School Collaborative Access Network, the first statewide effort of its kind in the nation, to enhance charter school capacity to serve students with disabilities and English language learners. MCPSA will be working with national partners including the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and the New York City Charter School Special Education Collaborative.

The Department continues to work collaboratively with MCPSA and other stakeholders to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and other learning challenges.

If you have any questions about these initiatives, please contact Cliff Chuang, Associate Commissioner at 781-338-3222; Jeff Wulfson, Deputy Commissioner at 781-338-6500; or me.

Last Updated: June 19, 2015
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