Tres Whitlock is stuck in a public school where he feels ignored. He wants out.
The 17-year-old would-be video game designer researched his options online and found his perfect match: Pivot Charter School.
"It's computer-based, and I think I will do better," he says.
But when Whitlock tried to enroll in the school, he found a series of barriers in his way. The reason? He has cerebral palsy, and school officials say they don't have anyone to take Whitlock to the bathroom.
Whitlock and his parents are convinced their story isn't unique — and enrollment data backs them.
A StateImpact Florida/Miami Herald investigation shows most charter schools in Florida are failing to serve students with severe disabilities.
Statewide, 86 percent of charter schools do not have any students classified as severely disabled. That's despite state and federal laws that require charter schools to give equal access to these students.
Whitlock's father, Maurice, says the family tried to alleviate Pivot's concerns. The family even offered to pay for physical and occupational therapy. Maurice Whitlock still feels burned by the experience.
"It's not negative or rude, but every angle was trying to find a different way to say 'no' every single time we were in that office," he said. "They were politely trying to say they didn't want him there. Because that's the easy way."
Carmela David, the principal of Pivot Charter School, declined to talk about Tres Whitlock. She says her school has never turned away a student because they're disabled.
"That has never happened," she said.
Whitlock is still trying to get into Pivot. In the meantime, he's been placed in a public school classroom that serves mainly students with mental disabilities.
It's a doubly bad situation for Whitlock. He doesn't feel mentally challenged. But he's also being ignored because he isn't able to raise his hand quickly enough to be noticed.
Whitlock can't control his vocal cords, so he communicates by typing his words into the DynaVox tablet that serves as his voice.
When he's asked about Pivot, his eyes widen and he smiles. With a twisted hand, he painstakingly types out his answer. The mechanical voice of the DynaVox can't mask his emotion.
"I have very few friends," Whitlock said. "I still want to go to Pivot."
They Cost Too Much
Charter schools first developed as an alternative for parents unhappy with their neighborhood school. They are publicly funded but privately run. Charter schools are given the flexibility to try new ideas and hire the staff they want.
According to state law, every student is supposed to have an equal shot at enrollment — including students with disabilities. But students with severe disabilities are not appearing in most charter school classrooms.
StateImpact Florida and The Miami Herald gathered and analyzed data on K-12 students with disabilities from 14 school districts representing more than three-quarters of Florida's total charter enrollment.
The analysis focused on students in the state's two most severe disability categories, which includes some students with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. It shows:
• More than 86 percent of the charter schools do not serve a single child with a severe disability — compared to more than half of district schools that do.
• In Duval County, just one student enrolled in a charter school has a severe disability. Duval district schools educate more than 1,000 severely disabled students.
• There's not a single child with a severe disability in charter schools in Pinellas County, the nation's 24th-largest school district.
• The majority of charter school students with severe disabilities are concentrated in a handful of schools that specialize in those disabilities, often autism.
The Florida Department of Education, citing privacy concerns, declined to provide statewide data of students with severe disabilities. But the agency said their analysis shows 86 percent of charter schools statewide had no students with severe disabilities.
It's a trend repeated in California, Louisiana, New York and Texas, according to researchers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Harvard University researcher Thomas Hehir calls it a "pattern of exclusion" among charter schools nationally. Hehir was the top special education official during the Clinton administration and played a leading role in rewriting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
He says it comes down to money.
"That is unfortunately what we find in altogether too many places," Hehir said. "I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they cost more money to educate."
In Miami-Dade schools, for instance, state funding covers only 58 percent of the total cost of educating students with disabilities. The schools have to make up the difference.
This goes to the heart of the debate over charter schools. Opponents, especially teachers unions, argue that charter schools cherry-pick students.
That's something the CEO of one of the nation's largest for-profit charter school chains flatly denied in a May interview with The St. Petersburg Times.
"We don't cream kids," said Jonathan Hage of Charter Schools USA. "It's just not factually correct to say charter schools cream schools or take the best."
"By the law, we must have an open enrollment process. Anyone can apply. And the process when we have more applicants than seats is a lottery without preferences," he said.
But there's a loophole. Where special education students attend school is determined by their Individual Education Plan (IEP). That plan is developed by the student, parents, school officials and therapists.
The IEP team won't send that student to a charter school that isn't set up to serve disabled students.
School districts design a systemic plan to educate students with disabilities. Charter schools do not. Their solution is often to refer students back to the traditional public schools — as happened to Tres Whitlock.
It's a Catch-22, according to Paul O'Neill, an expert in special education at Columbia University.
"When you get an IEP, it's now a mandate, it's a responsibility," he said. "You're not allowed to be any place that can't implement that IEP. That isn't an appropriate placement."
Even in the traditional public schools, not every school is expected to provide every service. About half don't serve a single child with a severe disability. Instead, they're sent to neighboring schools with specialized programs.
"The reason that there are a larger percentage of charter schools without [severely disabled] students is that charter schools do not have the infrastructure and economies of scale to provide special programs to meet the needs of those children," said Michael Kooi, director of school choice programs at the Florida Department of Education.
Kooi says school districts are supposed to design an overall plan to educate students with disabilities and avoid duplicating services.
"Charters as individual entities do not have this ability," Kooi said.
Charter school officials said they recognize the problem and are working to correct it.
Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said students with disabilities will become more of a priority as the charter school movement matures.
"I imagine that the children with disabilities will be next," Norman-Teck said. "Unfortunately, just like they were an afterthought in the traditional public schools — not necessarily an afterthought, but it came with time. I think that will happen in time."
Hage, the charter school CEO, points to one possible solution: entire charter schools that specialize in serving kids with disabilities.
"We're serving more and more students with special needs," Hage said. "In fact, you'll see more charter schools opening up for kids with autism, kids with severe disabilities."
Orange County has a network of such charter schools. More than twice as many disabled students attend Orange County charters as any other county.
In fact, when you factor out charter schools specializing in students with disabilities, charter schools enroll even fewer students with severe disabilities. These non-specialized charters enroll disabled students at a rate seven times lower than district schools.
Those specialty charter schools are available only in the state's largest counties. And even if a county does have a charter specializing in disabilities, it may be far away from the student.
Harvard University's Hehir has another name for this trend: segregation. He says it violates the students' civil rights.
"If we had similar patterns of exclusion of kids by gender or race, I think there would be much more outrage then there is on the part of government and on the part of people," he said.
Not An Option
Tres Whitlock's mother, Tonya Whitlock, says it may be legal for Pivot to deny her son entrance. But she says it certainly is not fair.
"If federal funding is going to fund these charter schools, then they should be equal," she said. "They should have equal opportunity for every student to be able to get an education at that school."
They believe Pivot would be better for Tres Whitlock in a number of ways. Pivot offers half-day classes, which deals with Whitlock's physical fatigue.
One more example: Whitlock won't have to raise his hand to get his teacher's attention. At Pivot, he can just signal his interest through his computer.
When they met with school officials in August, Pivot asked for testing and wanted to discuss Tres' education plan, Tonya Whitlock said.
The Whitlocks were willing to pay for some services themselves if it meant Tres could attend Pivot.
They tried to schedule a meeting between school officials and Whitlock's special education team, the group that develops and implements his federally required Individual Education Plan.
As the start of classes approached, the Whitlocks said Pivot school officials were slow to respond to their meeting request. They decided to enroll Tres in a district school rather than miss school.
Tres was given the option to attend a nearby school with a program for students with physical disabilities. But his younger brother went to their neighborhood school, Bloomingdale High. So he ended up in Bloomingdale's program for students with autism.
They're still aiming to get into Pivot.
Carmela David, Pivot's principal, declined to discuss Whitlock's specific case. She says Pivot must work with Hillsborough County special education experts to determine if the school is the best fit. The decision belongs to the district, she said.
"Sometimes it's not up to us," David said. "We don't always get to say, 'Yes, you can come'; 'No, you can't come.' "
Pivot does not have any students classified in the state's two most severe disability categories, according to Hillsborough County school records.
Tonya Whitlock feels her son is getting left behind in the meantime. "They kind of get put in the corner and forgotten about in the public schools," she said.
The Whitlocks are not happy with their choices.
Charter schools were designed for students seeking innovative methods and materials. They're supposed to be an option for students and families who feel the traditional schools are not meeting their needs.
But Tonya Whitlock says it may not be an option for them.
"When you have a child with a disability, they tell you where you're going to go, basically, and that's it," Tonya Whitlock said. "They are segregated ... and you're not allowed to go beyond those boundaries. So really, we don't have choices."
Miami Herald reporters Scott Hiaasen and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Explore the newpaper's series on charter schools.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With traditional public schools, where a family lives determines where a child will go to school. Charter schools were supposed to give people a choice. But that choice isn't always an option for some students with disabilities. That's the finding of an investigation by the NPR StateImpact Florida project and the Miami Herald. Reporter Sarah Gonzalez has more.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, high school for Tres Whitlock isn't just about what happens in the classroom. It's also about girls.
Do you have a crush?
(SOUNDBITE OF VOCALIZATION, LAUGHTER)
GONZALEZ: Tres has cerebral palsy. He can't walk or speak. But like any embarrassed teenager, he laughs.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GONZALEZ: Does she go to your school?
(SOUNDBITE OF VOCALIZATION)
GONZALEZ: Tres communicates by typing on a computer that generates a voice to tell us his future career.
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) A game programmer.
GONZALEZ: A game programmer. Right now, he's creating an iPod app so kids with disabilities can decorate and race virtual wheelchairs. Tres is a computer whiz. So when a charter school opened up near Tampa with an emphasis on computers, Tres had to apply. But when his family went for a tour of Pivot Charter School Tres says the principal told him: You can't come here.
Do you know why - what they told you?
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) I can't go the bathroom by myself.
GONZALEZ: Tonya Whitlock is Tres's mom. She says that's not fair.
TONYA WHITLOCK: The medications that Tres is on, he doesn't go to the bathroom very often. But if he has to go, there needs to be somebody there. And that was our only request that we did ask for. It's like we're begging people to just please let him go to your school.
GONZALEZ: They've been fighting to get him into Pivot Charter School for the past five months. The school's principal is Carmela David. She wouldn't talk about Tres specifically, or agree to be recorded. She says her school does serve some students with disabilities. But records show that no students with Tres' level of needs go to Pivot.
And that's typical for most Florida charter schools. StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald analyzed enrollment data on kids with severe disabilities - like Tres; kids with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism. Our investigation found that more than 85 percent of Florida charter schools don't have a single student with a severe disability. That's compared to half of traditional public schools.
Take Jacksonville, Florida. There are more than a thousand students in that district with a severe disability. One attends a charter school. Other counties don't have any such students.
THOMAS HEHIR: If we had similar patterns of exclusion of kids by gender or race, I think there would be much more outrage then there is.
GONZALEZ: That's Thomas Hehir. Back in the Clinton administration, he was the top official in charge of special education, and he helped rewrite federal disability law.
HEHIR: I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they do cost more money to educate.
GONZALEZ: For instance, Miami Dade is Florida's largest school district, and state funding only covers about 60 percent the cost of educating a severely disabled student. State and federal laws say no school - traditional or charter - is allowed to turn away kids because it's too expensive to educate them. But there's a loophole. The law also says students with severe disabilities can only go to schools that provide the services they need.
And our investigation found that most Florida charter schools do not offer those services. Adam Miller oversees charter schools at the Florida Department of Education. He says the traditional public school system has had decades to coordinate their programs and share special-ed teachers. But charter schools haven't gotten there yet, because each charter school operates on its own.
ADAM MILLER: It would be challenging for a single school to set up a program for a single student - which, I think, is why you see that for the most part, that doesn't happen.
GONZALEZ: It didn't happen for Belkys Vigil and her son, David, in Miami. He's 7 and has autism. Vigil says she tried to enroll David in several Miami charter schools because students are supposed to get one-on-one attention. But she says they all told her the same thing.
BELKYS VIGIL: Oh, we don't take him; we don't have the facilities for a special-needs child. Nobody. The tears that I would cry because of the rejection - it was constant.
GONZALEZ: Now, David is going to a private school, and his parents have to pay thousands of dollars a year. And remember Tres, the teenager with cerebral palsy? He's now going to a traditional public school that has a program for kids with autism. And his mom says he doesn't even have autism.
TONYA WHITLOCK: We had to compromise. We had to settle with an environment that we knew wasn't absolutely the best for him because we didn't have any other choices.
GONZALEZ: Tres says he desperately wants to be with regular kids.
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) I want to prove to them that I can be in normal classes.
GONZALEZ: And the girl Tres has a crush on, she's in one of those normal classes. But he's off in a different part of the school, so he's never had the chance to tell her how he feels.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in Miami.
MONTAGNE: And reporter John O'Connor, also with the project StateImpact Florida, contributed to that report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.