New Orleans making progress in special education, report says
June 21, 2016
By: Danielle Dreilinger
New Orleans’ public school administrators have spent the last year working on a flurry of policies, information sheets and presentations to improve special education, according to court documents released Monday (June 20).
It’s the long-delayed first report from an independent monitor charged with overseeing the consent agreement that settled a class-action special education lawsuit. Federal Judge Jay Zainey approved the agreement in February 2015.
Families said New Orleans public schools shuffled their children around, failed to evaluate or meet their needs and kicked them out, among other offenses. The city’s schools have been fragmented since Hurricane Katrina into dozens of independent charters in three systems: Orleans Parish; the Recovery School District, composed of schools taken over by the state; and the new charters created by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which are in New Orleans but must take students from all parishes.
Monitors with Mississippi-based Fluency Plus wrote the report. They came on board in January 2016 after the initial monitor resigned, according to court documents.
The agreement doesn’t catch problems from the past. Rather, it puts in place a framework of oversight to prevent and find problems going forward. Monday’s report focuses not on the situation at individual schools but on overarching policy changes.
“It’s a first step. This is going to be a long process,” said attorney Eden Heilman, who is on the Southern Poverty Law Center team representing the plaintiffs.
Generally, the monitors found schools were making progress. That was especially true for the state Education Department and state charters. Among their activities:
- All Recovery and state charters sent in a detailed description of their special education programs.
- The state trained representatives of all the city’s charter groups.
- Few state charters had adequate discipline policies for special education students, who may not be punished for having a disability. Therefore, the Louisiana Department of Education developed its own policies to serve as a model, and charters updated their documents.
In addition, the three school systems divvied up responsibility for finding students who might need special education services.
On several items, Orleans Parish schools fell short of the requirements or could not prove to the monitors that they had complied. Among other issues, administrators did not:
- Review the discipline policies for all the Orleans Parish network and charter schools.
- Post descriptions of each school’s special education programs on the Orleans Parish School Board website, or send them to parents.
- Adopt a formal discrimination complaint process for parents of students with disabilities.
- Send guidance to schools on enrollment discrimination policies.
- Fully train staff on special education issues, particularly discipline.
Orleans Parish lawyer Wayne Stewart said the last three items had either already been done or would be put into effect for the 2016-17 school year, according to Monday’s court filing. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the report “reflects the OPSB’s activities to successfully comply with the consent judgment” and “highlights the OPSB’s cooperative and collaborative relationship with the independent monitor.”
The Louisiana Department of Education also had some issues either completing requirements or proving it had done so. Those shortfalls included:
- Making sure every state charter sent parents information on how to file a complaint.
- Investigating complaints from parents when federal law required it.
- Training every principal on enrollment discrimination.
- Posting descriptions of each school’s special education program.
Education Department spokesman Ken Pastorick said the court had extended the deadline to complete the last item to July 29.
The agreement includes targeted monitoring for the schools that have the poorest results in four areas each year. For this purpose, all the schools in the Orleans Parish system in 2014-15, charter and network, were considered as a single entity, Heilman said.
More details will be available in the follow-up report, due to the court in August. However, the monitors provided some information Monday:
Finding and evaluating students for special education
- Joseph Craig Charter
- Lake Area New Tech High
- Sophie B. Wright Charter
These reviews could not be completed properly. Staff were supposed to choose a range of students to examine, all of whom showed signs they might have problems. Instead, they examined only a subset of those students.
Providing adequate services
- Algiers Technology Academy
- International High
- Landry-Walker High
The monitors were concerned about whether these schools set strong, measurable goals for their special education students. At Algiers Technology and International High, they found evidence students did not get all the services to which they were entitled.
High suspension/expulsion rates for students with disabilities
- Cohen College Prep
- Crescent Leadership Academy
- International High
The monitors had a number of questions about whether Cohen and International students were treated fairly and whether their parents were properly informed. Education Department staff did not review Crescent Leadership because they had visited the school the previous March. The monitors dinged them for not examining the required three schools.
Low re-enrollment of students with disabilities
- G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy
- Joseph A. Craig Charter
- Mildred Osborne Charter
Monitors were concerned about the quality of the students’ education plans as well as the data schools gathered to document students’ services and evaluate their progress.