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St. Louis charter schools are forming a new special education co-op

The exterior of a brick building. To the right of the frame is a trio of red, yellow and pink toy cars. The building features a green and glass door, above which reads "Welcome to the Soulard School."
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Soulard School in St. Louis, photographed Thursday. The charter school has joined a co-op that allows charter schools to share special education resources.

A group of St. Louis charter schools is launching a new cooperative to share special education resources.

In the past, charter schools have faced difficulties in providing special education for students. In large school districts, the scale can make it easier to employ specialists to address students’ needs, but small charters often have to hire contractors for just a few hours a week. Now, eight schools are combining resources to try to streamline special education services.

The Soulard School is among the charters participating in the co-op. Co-founder and Executive Director Sarah Christman said there was a steep learning curve for setting up special education services when the school switched from a private school to a public charter in 2019. Now, the school has about 160 students, and Christman knows the difficulties of providing services in a small school.

“The number of minutes that are required for students doesn’t always mean that we need someone more than even just one day a week, so hiring somebody one day a week is the challenge,” Christman said.

Kari Kraichely is familiar with that struggle. The director of student services for KIPP St. Louis started with the charter network 13 years ago, when it only had one school. Now, KIPP is looking to solve a different problem.

“What we're really hoping to do in this co-op is actually have some of our staff help out some of those smaller charter schools, who just need a few hours of occupational therapy a week, or speech language pathology a week, and some of our staff have availability, so they can help those other charter schools provide those minutes,” Kraichely said.

The co-op will look for ways to help its charter schools more efficiently manage special education staff and resources between schools. Kraichely said they’ve already tested how this could work, in a small pilot this spring between KIPP and City Garden Montessori.

“City Garden needed an evaluation done for a student who was maybe qualifying for special education needs,” Kraichely said. “We had some availability with one of our school psychologists who went over there and did all of the evaluations.”

The idea came, in part, from how some rural Missouri school districts share special education services. There are also some similarities to the way St. Louis County’s Special School District operates, said Jeanne Rothermel, special education compliance consultant with EducationPlus.

“This will be somewhat similar in that we are going to share staff for some of those situations where especially the smaller entities don't need five days a week, full time of a person,” Rothermel said. “So it is similar in that regard. That's about the only thing that it's similar in.”

Unlike this co-op, the county’s Special School District is funded by its own tax base, which is a unique situation in Missouri. The charter co-op will be funded by membership dues from the schools and an initial donation from a private family foundation that is remaining anonymous.

The exterior of a large stone building. Above its door is a red banner reading "Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls."
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, shown Thursday, in St. Louis. The charter school has joined a co-op that allows charter schools to share special education resources.

The new Shared Special Education Services Cooperative currently includes eight charters, including Atlas Public Schools, Confluence Academies, Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, Lafayette Preparatory Academy and Momentum Academy. It is an initiative of the STL School Leaders Collaborative, which convenes all city public school leaders to find opportunities to work together.

At first, the only co-op employee will be a coordinator, Teri Edwards, who previously worked as an administrator in multiple local school districts. For now, schools will hire their own service providers and will pay each other when they borrow those providers’ time. Eventually, Kracihely said the group does want to grow and potentially employ their own providers.

“And needs change every year, so every year, whatever schools are involved in this co-op are going to get together and say, ‘OK, what do we need? What are we missing?’ And then that will kind of inform us for the next year on what we're going to do in the co-op,” Kraichely said.

Christman hopes this co-op will eventually lead to even more collaboration among city schools.

“I think what happens a lot is that schools are trying to problem solve on their own a lot,” Christman said. “And when you're not in direct communication or community with other schools, there's a lot of missed opportunities.”

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.