Louisiana Key Academy

Teachers at the Louisiana Key Academy in Baton Rouge use large pens to help dyslexic children develop their motor skills during a lesson in 2014.

ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO BY MARK BALLARD

Despite its F rating, the contract of a Baton Rouge charter school for students with dyslexia was extended three years Tuesday by Louisiana's top school board.

The state will use a different rubric in the future when rating the school – Louisiana Key Academy – rather than the academic measuring stick used previously, which is also employed for rank-and-file students.

"We have an accountability system in this state that penalizes children with disabilities," said Doris Voitier, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who backed the extension.

While Tuesday's action involved committee approval, nine of BESE's 11 members were on hand and there were no dissents.

Final approval is all but certain when the full board meets on Wednesday at 9 a.m.

Students with dyslexia have trouble reading and recognizing words.

The school has about 300 students in grades one to five and is led by Dr. Laura Cassidy, wife of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.

The issue sparked a debate on how BESE should handle charter school extensions for schools that failed to meet state requirements but won high praise from parents.

Voitier, who is superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system, noted that the Louisiana Key Academy got an F from the state.

But Voitier also said parents say the school has been a "godsend" for their children.

Gary Jones, a BESE member who lives in Alexandria and is a former superintendent, said future charter school proposals should be accompanied by how the schools will be measured.

"I think it is terrible three years after a school has been in place and then we realize we did not set the groundwork right," Jones said.

"Put it on the table at the beginning of the discussion, not at the end," he said.

State Superintendent of Education John White said state officials should have established a different rubric for the school when it was authorized in 2012.

"We let that decision slip," White said. "Laying no blame on anyone, it was just a lack of foresight." 

BESE Vice President Holly Boffy, who lives in Youngsville, said rating schools like the Louisiana Key Academy "definitely requires a different approach."

The proposal to extend the school's charter sparked tearful testimony from some parents, who said their children were finally reading on grade level after years of frustrations in other schools.

Critics said it is unfair to single out one school for such treatment when other schools that serve students with special needs get no such consideration.

The school also got an F rating from the state in 2016.

At that time, it won a probationary extension contingent on changes in school operations and development of a new rubric.

Public or private schools for students with dyslexia are rare in Louisiana.

Students at the Louisiana Key Academy are immersed in language therapy in hopes they will become fluent readers.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.