Lusher’s ‘Joan of Arc’ Kathy Riedlinger often a focus of controversy over admissions, discrimination claims _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Lusher Charter School's Alcee Fortier Campus is seen in New Orleans, La. Thursday, April 14, 2016.

For months, Lusher Charter School, one of the top-ranked public schools in the state, has been waging a court battle to hold onto the extra funding it gets for pupils designated as gifted and talented, claiming that money is necessary to provide the enriched curriculum required for those students by state law.

But a group of current and former Lusher employees and parents claims the Uptown New Orleans school has been pocketing the money for years without providing the types of services that gifted students are supposed to receive.

The critics also claim Lusher officials have misled middle school parents and state officials about so-called "individualized education plans" for gifted students that schools must submit to the state.

Those plans are not public records. However, two such plans obtained by a reporter were signed by teachers designated by Lusher to teach gifted children despite lacking a gifted certification.

State law does not require charter school teachers who teach gifted students to be certified in gifted education, though gifted teachers in traditional schools must have that certification, according to a state official.

But one of the two plans reviewed by The Advocate was signed by a Lusher teacher who a parent said had never taught her child.

In May, a Lusher employee took concerns about Lusher’s services for gifted students to the Orleans Parish School Board, according to emails obtained by The New Orleans Advocate in response to a public records request.

The School Board, which authorizes Lusher’s charter operator and which Lusher has sued over school funding in federal court, said it’s monitoring the situation.

“Based on our initial review of the information provided by the employee, our (exceptional children’s services) department determined that the appropriate process for addressing this issue was through our ongoing monitoring system,” board spokesman Donnell Jackson said.

Lusher dismissed claims that it has given any gifted students short shrift, and it urged any parents with gripes to take those concerns to Lusher or the School Board.

“Lusher provides challenging and appropriate educational services to all students,” spokeswoman Cheron Brylski said. “Generalized accusations or inquiries into educational programming shall not be addressed via a public forum.”

If nothing else, the new accusations underscore continued tensions at a school that has been roiled over the past year by a unionization drive by teachers and accusations of discrimination in its admissions policies. They highlight rifts between at least some of the school's faculty members and the school's administration. And they come as Lusher — which administrators have said would lose more than $550,000 this year if a revised student funding formula is implemented — dukes it out in court to protect that money, much of which is meant to benefit gifted students.

The revised funding plan, which the School Board affirmed earlier this year, essentially would dole out more money to schools with a higher number of students with disabilities and less money to schools that enroll many gifted students.

Lusher and Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, which enroll sizable numbers of gifted students, sued the board in March over the plan, claiming it violated their charter contracts. A judge heard arguments in the case last month.

Two months after both schools sued the School Board, a Lusher employee told board officials that he or she had “serious concerns about ethics and the use of (special education) funding at Lusher,” according to emails. Officials later met with that employee; the heavily redacted documents obtained by the Advocate do not detail that discussion.

However, they do indicate the employee might have been concerned with whether Lusher’s regular and gifted students were doing the same work, whether gifted students were receiving higher grades for that work and whether the teachers listed on gifted children’s learning plans were in fact teaching those children, among other concerns.

According to state rules, gifted students must get differentiated and enriched instruction. While that doesn’t mean they can’t learn alongside other students, they must get supplemental services, additional time in a resource center or separate class, or other options, said Christine Briggs, director of the Center for Gifted Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“Let’s say, if I’m teaching addition and (the gifted students) already know addition, then I need to give something beyond the regular classroom curriculum that would be enriched,” Briggs said.

Jimmy and Michele Benson Huck, parents of two gifted former Lusher students, said they were pleased with the gifted services offered at Lusher’s elementary school. Their children’s teachers there met with the Hucks at least twice a year. But things changed when her younger child reached middle school, Michele Benson Huck said.

“As time went on, we got a piece of paper, but it didn’t have much information. The meetings completely ended,” she said.

She did say her younger child was allowed to take an Algebra 1 class in seventh grade, a year earlier than is typical. She’s not sure how widespread that practice is, she said.

Lusher officials did not directly respond to questions seeking to understand what enriched services are offered to gifted students. In the past, school administrators have declined to specifically address critiques about issues under litigation.

More disturbing to Huck was a learning plan signed by Rachael Carnacchio, who was listed as a gifted teacher. Carnacchio is Lusher’s special services coordinator; she has a certification to teach special-needs students classified as “mild/moderate” but not to teach academically gifted students, state records show.

And Huck said she’s never heard of her.

“I don’t know who that is. She was not in the classroom with my (child),” Huck said.

While a school district can authorize a teacher to temporarily teach a subject for which the teacher does not have expertise — through what is called an out-of-field authorization to teach — Carnacchio does not have that authorization on file, according to state records.

Another parent, who asked not to be named, provided a learning plan signed by eighth-grade math teacher Paul Jacob, who was listed as a gifted teacher. State records do not list an academically gifted certification or an out-of-field designation for him.

Lusher didn’t address claims that some so-called gifted teachers didn’t have appropriate certifications or weren’t in fact teaching gifted children. But Bridget Devlin, chief of staff for the Louisiana Department of Education, said Wednesday that charter schools are exempt from at least the state rule that requires gifted teachers to be certified.

"Charter school teachers are not required to hold the gifted add-on to teach gifted classes," Devlin said. A lack of gifted certifications do not impact those schools' compliance with federal special-education funding law, either, because gifted does not fall under those rules, she said. The department monitors all schools for compliance with that federal law.

The OPSB, for its part, said it will address the complaint it received through its ongoing monitoring process. “As with all of our schools, OPSB will make sure all students are receiving the appropriate resources and services,” Jackson said.

Brylski, the Lusher spokeswoman, also touted the OPSB’s annual oversight of Lusher’s program. She added that the staff will continue to work to meet student needs.

At least one “academic challenges” policy obtained by The Advocate hints at some form of enriched instruction for gifted students, though the critics who provided it say it is no longer being done at the high school.

“If we have a gifted kid that is not completing the Academic Challenges, the teacher should have a conversation with that student independently, not making a big deal of the gifted label but encouraging the student to challenge him or herself,” one bullet point on the three-page document reads.

The next bullet point perhaps best sums up the critics’ concerns, they say. “There’s no need to distinguish between the gifted and non-gifted label,” it says.

Editor's note: This story was changed Sept. 14 to reflect revised information provided by state education officials. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.