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No Excuses for This Charter School Lagniappe's Total Disregard for its Special Needs Students is Detestable, But not the norm in New Orleans Charters

On Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released a scathing report detailing the findings from an investigation into Lagniappe Academies by LDOE and Recovery School District (RSD) officials. The accusations in the report [see full report below] include:

  • Failing to provide legally-mandated services to special education students, then doctoring forms to make it appear as if those services had been provided
  • Creating a “Do Not Call” list of families who administrators did not want to return to the school
  • Attempting to deceive LDOE inspectors by hastily assembling a special education classroom that did not in fact exist
  • Ignoring requests by parents seeking special education evaluations for their children
  • Retaining a nearly a third of students at the end of the 2013-14 school year, but in many cases, failing to notify parents of those decisions
Lagniappe's principal, Kendall Petri, welcomes a student to school after checking to make sure she doesn't have an IEP.
Lagniappe’s principal, Kendall Petri, welcomes a student to school after checking to make sure she doesn’t have an IEP.

The report makes clear that responsibility for these acts lay with the school’s leadership, in particular, Principal Kendall Petri and Alison McCormick, the school’s Director of Positive Education, a title which would be almost laughable if the claims against the school weren’t so serious. According to LDOE, Petri told the school’s special education coordinator that SPED was not a priority and discouraged teachers from spending time addressing the needs of identified students. The report also claims McCormick encouraged teachers to cheat on standardized tests and then disparaged whistleblowers who cooperated with the state’s investigation.

Alison McCormick, who urged staff to falsify documents and disparaged both teachers and parents alike, serves as Lagniappe's "Director of Positive Education"  - no seriously, that's her title.
Alison McCormick, who urged staff to falsify documents and cheat on tests, serves as Lagniappe’s “Director of Positive Education” – no seriously, that’s her title.

It’s also clear that Lagniappe’s board bears responsibility by virtue of their woeful lack of oversight – a lapse compounded by the outright denial of the problems by some board members. For example, in an interview with the Times-Picayune, Vice Chair Dan Henderson called the report, “a big distraction,” and raised the possibility that the board might sue the state.

Lagniappe officials’ callous disregard for the welfare of its special needs students and their families is detestable – and if the accusations of fraudulent documentation prove to be true, they could considered criminal as well. On Wednesday, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard released a statement announcing he would recommend that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) rescind the school’s charter. As Dobard said, “Lagniappe failed to equitably and adequately serve its students and should no longer be allowed the privilege of serving the children of New Orleans.”

CORRECTION: A previous graphic here showed Lagniappe's board of directors, whose names I pulled from Lagniappe's website. However, I subsequently learned the board list was out-of-date.
CORRECTION: A previous graphic here showed Lagniappe’s board of directors, whose names I pulled from Lagniappe’s website. However, I subsequently learned the board list was out-of-date.

On Thursday, BESE acted on Dobard’s recommendation, with all 11 members of board voting not to renew Lagniappe’s charter. The same day, Kendall Petri resigned her position as principal of Lagniappe and the RSD announced plans to ease the process for Lagniappe students to transition to new schools next year.

While the revelations of this past week are certainly disappointing, here are three points to keep in mind in the wake of the Lagniappe scandal:

I. Lagniappe’s behavior is not representative of New Orleans charters as a whole

The Lagniappe revelations are affront to those of us who have worked hard to create a fair and equitable system of public schools that serve all students regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status. Over the past several years, the city’s charter schools, in concert with the RSD and organizations like New Schools for New Orleans and the Louisiana Special Education Collaborative, have redoubled their efforts to ensure that special education students receive the education they deserve.

The RSD has created OneApp, a city-wide enrollment system used by all but a handful of schools managed by the Orleans Parish School Board, that is specifically structured to ensure schools can’t discriminate against students with disabilities. The district has also established a centralized expulsion hearing process to ensure that students – particularly those with special needs – are not being unfairly kicked out of schools.

OneApp, the citywide enrollment system, is specifically structured to ensure schools can’t discriminate against students with disabilities.
OneApp, the citywide enrollment system, is specifically structured to ensure schools can’t discriminate against students with disabilities.

Furthermore, the RSD has pursued innovative approaches to serving the district’s special needs population. The RSD uses a unique funding structure to distribute state Minimum Foundation Program dollars to its charters which takes into account the added costs of serving students with special needs. While every district in the state receives additional funds for SPED students, the RSD allots this money based on the disability level of each special education student enrolled at a school. The per-pupil amount ranges from $1,400 for students who require speech pathology services, to $15,000 for students with severe/profound disabilities.

Finally, the district is preparing to launch the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, a joint venture between the RSD and Orleans Parish School Board, that will serve students with severe behavioral health disabilities. The program will provide these students with wraparound support services including, individual, group, and family therapy, therapeutic recreation activities, and medication management.

II. New Orleans SPED students are outperforming their peers across the state

The RSD’s collective efforts to better serve special education students is having a demonstrable effect on student outcomes. Special education students in New Orleans’ charter schools receive the equivalent of an additional 3 months of instruction in reading and 2 months in math when compared to traditional public schools across the state. Furthermore, New Orleans charter schools outperform other Louisiana charters in reading and math instruction.

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As a result of this additional support, more special education students in New Orleans are graduating from high school. For example, the four-year cohort graduation rate for special education students in 2013 was significantly higher than the statewide average.

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III. RSD’s actions against Lagniappe demonstrate their commitment to equity and willingness to hold schools accountable

Critics of New Orleans’ school reforms have made all kinds of baseless accusations against the RSD. They have attempted to call into question evidence of the dramatic gains in student achievement seen since the RSD’s takeover in 2005. They accuse the RSD and LDOE of skewing data to create a false appearance of success in New Orleans charter schools. They also attempt to portray policies aimed at ensuring equity, such as city-wide access and the RSD’s insistence on closing failing schools, as unjust.

However, the actions the district have taken against Lagniappe demonstrate the RSD’s unbending commitment to ensuring all students have access to a high-quality education. After all, if the RSD was simply trying to maintain a false appearance of success, they could have very easily turned a blind eye to the unacceptable treatment of special needs students at Lagniappe. They didn’t. Instead, they conducted a thorough investigation of the abuses at the school and made the results public, then moved swiftly to rescind Lagniappe’s charter. In so doing, the RSD reaffirmed that the city’s post-Katrina public school system must serve all children, especially those with greatest needs – and that discrimination will not be tolerated.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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