The Louisiana Department of Education on Tuesday released a scathing report about an independent charter school in New Orleans called Lagniappe Academies, accusing the Treme school’s leadership of failing to provide services for students with special needs and attempting to hide the fact from state officials.
The report came as a rare acknowledgement on the part of the state that a New Orleans charter had tried to shirk its legal responsibility to educate every child.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but are run as independent nonprofits, have faced similar accusations for years, both in New Orleans and around the country. However, state officials, who oversee most public schools in the city through the Recovery School District, have only occasionally felt they had enough evidence of wrongdoing to make public accusations, even though almost every school in New Orleans now operates as a charter.
“The department has developed significant concern about the competence of the school leadership to manage the basic operations of the school,” the report concludes. “A preponderance of evidence provided by families and teachers and collected by the Department of Education suggests that the school administration is not able to adequately manage the needs of the students within the building.”
Attempts to reach the school’s administrators for comment Tuesday evening were unsuccessful.
Under scrutiny from state officials, members of the nonprofit board that governs Lagniappe voted last year to leave the Recovery School District and transfer to the Orleans Parish School Board, the local body that used to run all of the city’s public schools. Charters under state control become eligible to return to the OPSB when their academic performance reaches a certain level.
Now it appears unlikely that the school will even be allowed to continue operating past the end of the school year. The Department of Education is scheduled to make a recommendation to the state school board on Wednesday about whether Lagniappe’s charter should be renewed, and the report leaves little doubt about what the recommendation will be.
The report outlines a litany of deficiencies, mostly relating to students with special needs. It says that Lagniappe staff failed to properly identify students with particular disabilities, ignored requests from parents that their children be evaluated, and directed teachers not to provide services that were spelled out in so-called IEPs, or individualized education programs. By federal law, those are required for students with special needs.
The report also alleges that “families of students with identified and suspected special needs were discouraged from attending school and/or returning to the school in subsequent years by the school leadership.”
It adds that Lagniappe has held an unusual number of students back a grade without notifying their families or adjusting their IEPs, a requirement of state policy.
One teacher was asked to “fabricate testing data” for three kindergarten students, the report says.
On top of that, state officials accuse the school of trying to hide its deficiencies. The report says Lagniappe administrators told staff to document special education services they hadn’t actually provided. Some were allegedly told to “set up a physical space within the school to suggest that a classroom was available for small group instruction” before a monitoring visit from the state.
The findings about Lagniappe will no doubt feed into a debate about the wisdom of independently run schools as the city nears the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which marked the beginning of a dramatic shift toward charter schools in New Orleans.
For critics of that shift, the school’s failings would seem to validate one of the primary accusations they have been lobbing at the new system for years: that charters have tried to avoid having to accommodate students who are harder or more expensive to educate.
In December, the state agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by a collection of families who said they either had been shut out of the city’s charter schools or couldn’t get needed services where their child did attend.
The charter movement’s defenders have said consistently that criticism over special education services is overblown. Even if some schools have dodged their responsibilities, they argue, the majority have not, as illustrated by state data showing some of the most successful charter schools have far more special-needs students than the city or state average.
A new central enrollment system, called the OneApp, now gives state officials a degree of control over which students are admitted to which schools. And the Lagniappe report at least suggests a willingness on the part of the state to call out schools that violate the law.