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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education
On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.
Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.
For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
Dear Board Members,
In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.
On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.
Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.
These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.
In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.
Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.
Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.
If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA
All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers
For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.
Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.
Unethical and possibly worse
Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.
According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.
In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.
Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.
The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
Exactly why reform is needed
When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.
In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.
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