Things seemed off right away at Lagniappe Academies, a Treme elementary school where she had just arrived as a first-year teacher. Her class was made up entirely of the lowest-performing students in the grade, she said, but she was not allowed to do anything about it.
The teacher, who spoke on condition that her name not be used, said she was told not to deviate from the standard lesson plans, even if some students clearly needed special-education services they were not receiving. “It didn’t matter if they scribbled all over the sheet,” she said.
She had one student who was repeating the grade, she recalled, and he arrived unable to write letters or count. “I had to potty train him,” she said. “He couldn’t hold a pencil.”
When state monitors showed up to look into the school’s practices, administrators asked her to help arrange one room so that it looked as if it were set up for special-needs services, she said. “Oh, man, did they put on a show. It was ridiculous.”
Lagniappe Academies, an independent charter school, is now set to close at the end of the school year. The state school board voted Friday to revoke its charter, with state officials accusing the school of ignoring the needs of disabled students and trying to hide that fact from state monitors.
The case elicited starkly different conclusions from partisans on both sides of the debate over charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. If the allegations are true, Lagniappe could serve as the poster child for nearly everything critics say is wrong with the charter movement as a whole — a school that willfully ignored the law and tried to push out hard-to-serve students so its test scores would look better.
The charter movement’s supporters were more likely to see Lagniappe as a rare outlier, even as they acknowledged that charter schools in New Orleans have faced serious challenges in trying to meet the needs of disabled students.
At a minimum, interviews with state officials and two of the teachers who signed affidavits against the school illustrate how necessary state monitoring remains at a time when the Louisiana Department of Education is facing the possibility of draconian budget cuts.
The case also raises questions about whether state officials, who govern most public schools in New Orleans through the Recovery School District, are paying close enough attention. None of the data the state collects about schools tipped off officials. A routine monitoring visit in 2011 turned up deficiencies. But a serious investigation began only in September, and only because two anonymous teachers were willing to come forward with accusations, two of about half a dozen who ended up corroborating the state’s claims.
By assigning all students with a computer program, the state’s new central enrollment system, the OneApp, is supposed to keep schools from shutting out special-needs students. But it does not guarantee that students will then receive the services they are entitled to or that they won’t face subtle pressure to go elsewhere.
Lauren Morando Rhim, the founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, read the state’s report on Lagniappe and said she was struck by how long the school was allowed to operate. She said easily available data about student turnover should have raised concerns.
“It’s not enough to have OneApp in place,” Rhim said. “You’ve got to have follow-up monitoring. These data are low-hanging fruit.”
Patrick Walsh, who leads the Department of Education’s monitoring office, acknowledged that the state’s oversight procedures could always use improvement. But he said the numbers involved in Lagniappe’s case were too small to draw conclusions from. The school has about 160 pupils. So, for example, if just a handful of its special-needs students were to go elsewhere, it would cause the overall proportion to swing wildly.
“I don’t think anyone can ever create a flawless monitoring system,” Walsh said. “But our monitoring process is being revised to catch egregious numbers like this and account for small sample sizes.”
Still, he could not say why the department did not do more to crack down after visiting the school in 2011, shortly after it opened, and discovering that it had no formal procedure for identifying students with disabilities, a legal requirement known as “child find.”
At the time, the state made only a “recommendation” that Lagniappe establish such procedures, rather than issue a “finding,” which would have been a formal notice that the school was not complying with the law.
Whatever the case, Walsh said his office was quick to investigate after two former Lagniappe teachers told state officials in September that special-needs students were being mistreated. He said monitors visited the school in October and found an unusually small number of students with so-called individualized education programs. And he said that even those who did have IEPs, which are required by law, were not getting the services outlined in them.
The school responded with a corrective action plan and also provided records meant to show that students actually were receiving the required services.
Walsh said those records immediately raised suspicions. When state officials dug in, they found that some of the dates when students were supposed to have gotten individual attention fell during the school’s fall break or on a day when either the student or the teacher was absent. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
“There are people who have problems implementing IDEA,” Walsh said, referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “It’s hard and technical and confusing. But I’ve never seen a school that chose not to serve students.”
‘No due process’
Lagniappe’s attorney did not respond to a request for an interview with the school’s CEO, Kendall Petri. But Dan Henderson, who sits on the school’s nonprofit board, flatly denied the state’s accusations in an interview this week.
Henderson conceded that Lagniappe needed to improve the way it handles special education. But he denied any kind of cover-up attempt and said that overall, the school has succeeded with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, lifting its academic results from an F rating into the B and C range. He said the allegations come from a few “disgruntled” teachers and parents and pointed out that one group of families has signed a petition to keep the school open.
“There was no due process for us to deal with those allegations,” he said. “We were never given a chance to discuss them.”
The two former Lagniappe teachers who agreed to speak for this article feel differently. Both are still teachers at New Orleans charter schools and said they do not believe Lagniappe is the norm. Both of them blamed Lagniappe’s administrators, rather than their fellow teachers, for the school’s failings.
“The school is not closing because of a bunch of incompetent teachers,” one said. “The vast majority of teachers there are wonderful, effective teachers who want the best for their kids.”
Another teacher, who also requested anonymity, had the same take. She said, “My experience there was very much one of talented, passionate teachers who were constantly prevented from doing what was best for kids in the classroom by administration policies.”
She said the school’s philosophy was that keeping class sizes small meant students would get the individualized attention they need, but it wasn’t enough. The school refused to evaluate students who might need extra help, she said, and even those who had been evaluated weren’t getting the pullout services required by law.
“Time and time again, nothing happened,” she said.
Evidence of progress
Whether other schools in New Orleans have similar issues is hard to say. For years, charter schools have been battling the perception that they only “cream” off the best students. And their supporters argue they have made big strides in correcting whatever shortcomings did exist when charters first started expanding after Hurricane Katrina.
There is evidence to back up the idea that many special education students are being better served in New Orleans than in the past.
A report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education pointed out recently that just 5 percent of students with special needs in New Orleans ended up leaving the school system with a high school diploma in 2001. By 2013, that figure was up to 48 percent.
An analysis of testing data from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Louisiana charter schools provide special-needs students with what amounts to about 50 extra days of learning in reading and 36 days in math, compared with their counterparts in traditional schools.
At the same time, Lagniappe is not the only school to face accusations. The Recovery School District also penalized the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward late last year after some parents complained they had been assigned to the school through the OneApp but were turned away.
Emails between district officials and King’s staff, obtained through a public records request, lay bare a harsh dispute over what the school’s legal responsibilities are and whether it has lived up to them. At one point, the school’s lawyer, Tracie Washington, accused the district of intentionally assigning the school disabled students as punishment.
“What kind of moron assigns a wheelchair-bound student to a school in trailers, barely wheelchair-accessible,” she wrote in one email, adding later, “The fact that the RSD staff dislikes the folk at King should not take precedent over the well-being of these African-American students.”
RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard wrote back that he was “dismayed” she would make such an accusation and asked her not to use the word “moron” to describe his staff.
Ultimately, the state school board gave King a charter renewal, but only after school officials signed a pledge to take all comers through the OneApp.
In an interview, Dobard said the situations at both King and Lagniappe should demonstrate that state officials take oversight seriously and have taken the necessary steps to improve. He pointed to the OneApp as well as a new Charter School Performance Compact, a document all schools must sign that lays out exactly what their legal responsibilities are.
“The policies we’ve put in place are working,” Dobard said. “Unfortunately, there are schools that are performing well academically but excluding kids who are difficult to serve. That’s unacceptable.”
Editor’s note: This story was altered on March 26 to reflect the correct name of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.