Officials say New Orleans charter school tried to cheat on exams, funding formula _lowres

Gerald Herbert/AP -- Students wait in line at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

State officials said Friday that former administrators at a charter school in the Irish Channel attempted to cheat on exams and fill a budget gap by manipulating the number of disabled students enrolled at the school.

It was the second time in a year officials publicly identified serious violations at one of the city’s independent charters. Last March, the state accused Lagniappe Academies, a school in Treme, of ignoring students with special needs and encouraging their families to enroll them elsewhere. That school lost its charter and closed.

Similar suspicions about charter schools in general have persisted for years, and a sweeping court order now mandates heightened monitoring by the state and the local school board. But there have been relatively few cases where state officials have confirmed wrongdoing.

In the latest case, state officials say administrators at SciTech Academy, which is run by a nonprofit charter management group called ReNEW Schools, rushed students through the process of identifying special needs without the required documentation, also inflating the amount of individual attention each student would require.

Because public schools get extra dollars for disabled students, that helped SciTech plug a $300,000 budget deficit, the state officials said.

At the same time, state investigators found that many of the students who did require special services were not actually receiving them. One teacher interviewed by the state said staff members were told that “special education was to be a secondary priority to students who were more likely to pass the exams,” according to a summary of the allegations drawn up by the state Department of Education.

Officials did not turn up evidence that SciTech actually inflated its test scores, which have important consequences in the state’s school accountability system. But they did interview teachers who said administrators instructed them to look at state testing materials after students had taken the exams — a violation of state policy that theoretically could have given the school an unfair edge the following year.

Officials have imposed a list of “corrective actions” that apply to both the school and ReNEW, which runs seven campuses around the city. They’ve brought in James Meza, a former superintendent of Jefferson Parish public schools, as an independent monitor.

“Given the violations that we’ve uncovered, we’ve taken strong and decisive actions regarding this organization,” said Patrick Dobard, who oversees most public schools in New Orleans as head of the state’s Recovery School District and who credited officials at ReNEW with cooperating in the investigation.

Dobard added, “I believe the processes we have in place for monitoring and holding schools accountable are as strong as ever.”

In this case, ReNEW alerted the state to the potential violations on the part of the SciTech administrators, who left the school in May, although state officials said they were confident their own annual audits would have spotted the problem.

For instance, SciTech newly identified 16 students as requiring special services for the 2014-15 school year, a jump that officials said would have been a red flag.

ReNEW released a statement Friday saying it has hired “nationally recognized experts” to remedy the school’s problems and has begun to compensate students with extra services.

“The moment we discovered the issues at SciTech Academy ... we took immediate and decisive action,” the statement said. “Not only to remedy them, but to ensure they will never happen again.”

Potential wrongdoing at SciTech first became public in June, when former ReNEW CEO Gary Robichaux, who stepped down last month, said SciTech’s two top administrators, School Leader Tim Hearin and Principal Alex Perez, had resigned.

At the time, Robichaux said Hearin and Perez had allowed students to cheat on internal diagnostic exams, rather than the official tests Louisiana uses to grade public schools. But state officials said ReNEW later informed them there might also have been more-serious testing violations and “areas of concern” having to do with disabled students.

The “corrective action plan” imposed by the state suggests that ReNEW — one of the bigger charter management groups to have emerged in a city where most public school students now attend charter schools — has significant reforms to undertake.

The plan requires the group to develop a “strong” governing board with “expertise in relevant areas.”

And it will have to turn in an organizational chart with “clear management lines for the central office,” among other stipulations.

More specifically, the school is required to develop a plan to compensate students for the instruction they should have been given, something officials said is underway.

To prevent future testing violations, the school will have to provide staff with extra training, hire an outside testing monitor and develop a whistleblower policy to facilitate complaints.

The Department of Education said it is taking steps to make sure Hearin and Perez do not get jobs again in Louisiana public schools.