Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Some kids don't count"

“The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina”

Arne Duncan

For those who haven't been following the education reform debate closely, Duncan's quote tends to come as something of a shock. The idea that the storm was the best thing to happen to any aspect of the city seems too much to consider. Within the movement, though, the Big Easy has long been seen as the perfect test case and its perceived successes have been a source of pride and validation.

To a lesser extent (though gaining ground), New Orleans is seen by reform critics as evidence of fundamental flaws in the movement agenda. They point to draconian discipline, student protests and, increasingly, scandals.

Danielle Dreilinger writing for The Times-Picayune earlier this month.
The former principals of ReNEW SciTech Academy in Uptown New Orleans were accused Friday (Jan. 29) of special education fraud, failing to follow federal special education law and breaking state testing rules. Louisiana Recovery School District officials said the principals, Tim Hearin and Alex Perez, snagged almost $320,000 in public money for the school in the 2014-15 academic year by artificially inflating special education services.


Gary Robichaux, the ReNEW group's chief executive during the shenanigans, remains employed by the six-school charter network in an advocacy position at his same $154,000 salary, officials said. That's even though emails released by the state show he knew about some of the manipulations at least as early as January 2015.


Recovery Superintendent Patrick Dobard said the issues were very serious; ReNEW is currently in breach of its charter contract, which could result in losing its schools. The Recovery system does not have the authority to recover money SciTech received inappropriately, Dobard said.


The special education tricks were big and blatant, intended to fill a $300,000 budget gap that Hearin and Perez knew they were creating at their 730-student school. The Recovery system doles out special education money based on the number of students who need services, their specific diagnoses and the amount of time they need help.

SciTech rushed students through special education evaluations, sometimes without parent involvement, increasing the school's budget by $137,800. Staffers also blew up the education plans of 49 students, adding an average of 1,032 minutes of extra help, which totals 2 1/2 days per week; that brought in $180,000.


Paradoxically, at the same time the principals juiced the special education funding, they ignored the special education students, telling staff they were "to be a secondary priority to students who were more likely to pass the state assessments," the report says. Some kids, the principals said, "don't count."

Seventy-seven children were supposed to have some time in a separate classroom, but there was no evidence SciTech did that for any student last year. Nineteen of 76 children received none of the services in their individual education programs, and about 42 received partial help. Federal law requires that public schools give children the services specified in their plans.

Instead, Hearin and Perez spread the money across the school to support increased staffing overall – including "special education" teachers who didn't know they were supposed to teach special education. When one administrator complained, one of the principals insulted them for "conflating law with morality," the report says. The staffer decided three days later not to return to SciTech in the fall.


The principals had planned, however. They held back a large number of students going into the fall of 2014 – 15 percent – in the hope of improving test scores. This was one of the violations found in March 2015 at Lagniappe Academies, which the state then shut down. At least one mother didn't even know her child was repeating seventh grade, according to a May 14 email: She "came in today wanting to discuss high school."

SciTech leaders also tried to commit another trick later outlined in the Lagniappe report: giving students test accommodations for a disability even if they did not have a disability. Teachers resisted the request; it was not clear in the report whether any gave in. 

Dreilinger again from back in March
New Orleans charter school Lagniappe Academies illegally deprived special education students of the teaching they needed -- and then faked forms to hide it once the Louisiana Department of Education was on its trail.

Those are just two of the explosive findings in a report released Tuesday (March 3) by the state. More:

    The school held back almost one third of its students last year, sometimes despite spring report cards saying the child did well.
    Administrators refused to screen students for special education services even when families had a diagnosis from a doctor.
    They created a "Do Not Call" list of families whose children they did not want back, and instructed staff to skip them when phoning families with key information about registration and summer session.
    When state officials were to visit, administrators asked staff to move furniture out of a storage space so it looked like the school had a special education room.
    And administrators put in for a very high number of disability accommodations requests when testing time came around --  although almost no students received those accommodations during the school year.

In a written response, the Lagniappe board asked for more time to consider the findings. It also submitted an affidavit from administrator denying a handful of the allegations.

Lagniappe board member Dan Henderson called the report "a big distraction" in a Monday email to | The Times-Picayune. "We are continuing to serve all of our 160 students, and look forward to another round of high-stakes testing, showing again our amazing accomplishments."
When the Lagniappe story broke, at least one commenter brought this quote from 2014:
John Ayers, executive director of Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, said that’s not surprising, considering RSD’s growth over the past few years.

The next step, he said, is for schools with impressive gains to share what worked.

“If we have a pocket of excellence that may be Lagniappe — and they may be very proud of what’s happening — how do we get that innovation to spread?” he said.

1 comment:

  1. What I don't understand about charter school policy is why people think it's a good idea that charter schools can be allowed to fail.

    Any charter school that fails is a school that's done irreparable harm to the kids who were in that school. But that harm seems to have an economic value of zero in terms of the policy.

    And the harm to the children isn't just economic. Changing schools is a huge predictor for going off the rails.