State IG’s Office probing reports of cheating at Algiers high school _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans, photographed Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

Recovery School District officials said Tuesday that all RSD charter schools in New Orleans will invite outside monitors to observe their classrooms during standardized exams — a striking attempt to beat back suspicions after cheating allegations surfaced at a school led by one of the city’s most respected principals.

Included will be the schools governed by the Algiers Charter School Association, the parent group of L.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker High School, which is under state investigation.

Education officials said last week that the state Inspector General’s Office is looking into suspicious test scores at the school, and the Algiers association has placed four school administrators on paid leave in light of that review. Mary Laurie, the school’s principal, is one of them.

ReNEW Schools, a charter group that was criticized last month after a state investigation found administrators had encouraged teachers to violate state testing policies, also will submit to the exam monitoring.

Officials said the idea of stepped-up scrutiny came from RSD charter school leaders themselves, who appear to be moving swiftly to allay suspicions that improprieties at Landry-Walker and ReNEW might be indicative of a larger problem.

Credible allegations of widespread cheating would rock a city whose school reform efforts in the past decade have been closely watched statewide and around the country.

“We believe we owe it to our students, families and the public at large to run a responsible testing process, characterized by integrity and transparency,” said Rhonda Aluise, chief executive of KIPP New Orleans Schools.

KIPP and 18 other charter operators, representing more than 50 RSD schools, sent a letter Monday to RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard, pledging to increase their oversight of the standardized exams. The 19th and final group under partial RSD oversight, Friends of King Charter Schools, also has agreed to step up monitoring.

Those schools will pay for monitors from a list of state-approved organizations. The observers eventually will publicize their findings online, the first time that such reports have been so easily accessible.

The state releases an annual report that outlines the number of schools that officials visit and the problems they find, but detailed information is usually available only by public records requests.

This spring, the state will continue its typical monitoring and will move forward with a new plan, discussed last year, to send additional observers to classrooms at schools whose charter operators are up for contract renewals or extensions, which depend largely on improved scores.

In the past, state officials visited only a certain number of schools each year, dividing their visits between randomly selected schools and those with past testing problems.

Outside scrutiny helped raise the alarm at Landry-Walker in the first place. Acting on a tip after students posted uncharacteristically high test scores in certain subjects, the Algiers charter group placed monitors at the school the following year and watched scores plunge.

At least five other widely publicized cheating incidents or allegations at New Orleans schools also have involved administrators. Those schools are ReNEW’s SciTech Academy, Robert Russa Moton Charter School, the former G.W. Carver High School and Miller-McCoy Academy, and Lafayette Academy, although Lafayette’s independent charter board later deemed that allegation unsubstantiated. Similarly, the Orleans Parish School Board later retracted its allegation against Moton.

School leaders took pains Tuesday to cast the problems as isolated and said the ongoing investigation is proof the state is policing bad actors. “The vast majority of our schools have made this progress the right way,” Crocker College Prep Principal Amanda Aiken said.

Tuesday’s announcement pertains only to RSD schools. At the Orleans Parish School Board, which governs campuses that were not taken over by the RSD after Hurricane Katrina, at least one central office staffer is present at each school during spring testing, per system policy.

School officials could not say whether every charter group in the RSD would have monitors in place for this year’s testing, which, at most elementary schools, begins in April; tests for some high school students will start within weeks.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.