A Northwest D.C. public charter school that has not enrolled a special-education student in three years is under scrutiny by District officials.

Roots Public Charter School, which serves 120 children in grades pre-K through 8, said it does not discriminate against students with physical or emotional disabilities. But the staff of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 57 publicly funded, independently operated schools, said in a recent report it has “grave concerns” about Roots’ admissions practices. It said the board planned “an intensive compliance review” of the school.

Federal law requires that all public schools provide “a free and appropriate” education to students with disabilities. Charter schools, which are open to all families citywide on a first-come-first-served basis, are prohibited from inquiring about a prospective student’s special-education status. About 10 percent of the city’s 29,366 charter school students were eligible for special-education services, according to enrollment data from the 2010-11 school year. Roughly 13 percent of traditional D.C. public school students are in special education.

The inquiry into Roots comes as charter school treatment of special-needs students has been called into question in the District and across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of thousands of disabled New Orleans students. Last year, the Bazelon Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, filed a complaint with the Justice Department charging that some of the District’s charters openly discourage parents of disabled children — especially those with significant needs — from enrolling.

Traditional D.C. public schools serve the vast majority of “Level 4” students — those with the most profound emotional or physical disabilities. Most Level 4 charter students are concentrated at two schools, St. Coletta and Options. The Justice Department is gathering information about the complaint, which did not name Roots or other individual schools.

Roots, tucked into a converted garage in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood, opened in 1999 built around Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of African heritage: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Its Web site says part of its mission is to “prepare students to break the chains of psychological conditioning that attempt to keep them powerless in all phases of society.” Class sizes are small, with a 1-to-10 teacher-student ratio. About 60 percent of Roots students read at proficient or advanced levels on the 2011 DC CAS. The charter board’s new performance rating system places the school in “Tier 2,” the middle of its three tiers.

School officials said they have served special-education students over the years, just not in the past three. Founder and Principal Bernida Thompson said they often draw parents who don’t want their children labeled as needing special services.

“A lot of parents who go here feel that too many black children are labeled special ed and that this is a conspiracy against black children and they don’t want that,” Thompson said. “Ours is an African-centered school. They learn about their heritage and it gives them power and strength.”

Roots officials also said the school’s open design, with no walls separating classrooms, makes it less attractive to parents with children who have attention-deficit issues or who require time away from regular classes to receive special services.

Charter board members said they are not accusing Roots of wrongdoing, but that the unusual absence of special-education students merits investigation.

“It does seem odd that any of our schools would have no students with disabilities enrolled,” board member Darren Woodruff said.

Board members also said that they could not account for why Roots was able to go for three years without a special-education enrollment before questions were asked.

“We weren’t on top of it,” Vice Chairman John “Skip” McKoy said. “And they [the school] weren’t on top of it.”


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