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How a new guide hopes to improve special education services in New Orleans charter schools

A teacher works with students at Crescent City Schools' Aurora Program. The program is for students in grades K-8 who have experienced trauma or have social-emotional difficulties that make learning in a general education classroom difficult.
Crescent City Schools
Crescent City Schools' Aurora Program is for students in grades K-8 who have experienced trauma or have social-emotional difficulties that make learning in a general education classroom difficult.

Navigating New Orleans’ all-charter public school system can be challenging for families — especially if their child has special needs.

Now there’s a new guide produced jointly by NOLA Public Schools and the Center for Learner Equity that highlights some of the city’s specialized programs and how to apply for them.

The ten programs, run by seven charter operators, are meant for students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, as well as for students with disabilities requiring therapeutic behavioral support who are best served outside of a general education classroom for at least part of the school day.

  • Crescent City Schools: Aurora Program (grades K-8)
  • FirstLine Schools: Discovery Plus (grades 3-8)
  • Inspire NOLA: Content Mastery Setting (grades K-8)
  • KIPP New Orleans: Academic & Functional Skills (grades K-12)
  • ReNEW Schools: ReNEW Therapeutic Program (grades 1-8
  • Collegiate Academies: REACH (9-12), Essential Skills (9-12), Journey (9-12), Opportunities Academy (ages 18 to 22)
  • NOLA College Prep: Academy of Career & Community Education (ages 14-22)

The guide also lays out a standard referral process and the district, in a move uncommon for the decentralized system, has pledged to use central office resources to help families connect with the programs.

“We want to provide our school community with all of the resources and information needed to assist our students and families in accessing the most appropriate supports and services,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement.

The district described the guide as essential to its vision for improving special education access, funding and quality in the city so that all students with disabilities who require significant support can “benefit from meaningful educational opportunities no matter what school they currently attend.”

The district estimates that nearly 4,000 students with special needs will qualify for an individual education plan (IEP) next school year. 

Jennifer Coco, a local policy manager with the Center for Learner Equity, said prior to the guide’s release earlier this month, most program information was not publicly available to families.

Instead, parents have relied on word of mouth to make school decisions.

“We know that there are many other types of specialized programs that our city should have in our schools — we just don't quite have them yet,” Coco said.

Coco said the guide is a starting point and needs to be improved upon based on feedback from schools and families. District officials said they plan to work with the Center for Learner Equity to gauge program interest and create more capacity as needed.

While some of the programs are full, Coco said some of them have openings. Overall, she believes there’s more demand than availability and that more seats need to be created.

Families interested in the programs should work with their child’s IEP team to see if the program they are interested in is a good fit and undergo a formal referral process, Coco said.

Now that there’s greater understanding of the options that are available, she said her organization plans to keep a close eye on enrollment and help schools scale their programs responsibly.

Her team has been working on the guide for several years, and there’s been some hesitancy on the part of schools to talk about their specialized programs publicly, especially if they serve a small number of students and are still in development, Coco said.

There are other specialized programs that are not in the guide, and she hopes more charters will be willing to participate in the future. The guide simply lists available programs and doesn’t assess their quality, though Coco said this is something she’d like to do in the future.

Every school is federally required to provide the services deemed necessary for students with special needs. In a traditional district, specialized programs are often centralized and not every school has its own specialized program.

But in New Orleans’ all-charter system, parents decide where to send their children. That means the city’s highest-needs students could be enrolled anywhere.

According to experts, this creates a myriad of issues related to both accountability and finances.

NOLA Public Schools has been subject to outside special education monitoring since 2015 as part of a class action settlement filed on behalf of public school parents by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

As a result, dozens of schools have received state-issued corrective action plans (CAPs) or intensive corrective action plans (ICAPs) over the last six years and plans are currently in place at nine schools.

Lauren Winkler, a senior staff attorney for the SPLC children’s rights project, said the implementation of federal and state special education laws has been “scattershot” since Hurricane Katrina and the transition to an all-charter system.

According to data provided by SPLC, 15 schools have been subject to extended monitoring more than once after they ran afoul of the consent agreement guidelines. Two of the schools have since closed, Joseph S. Clark High School and William J. Fischer Accelerated High School, and others have been assigned new operators.

During the 2019-20 school year, more than half of the district’s schools were identified by the state as either needing or requiring urgent intervention as it related to students with disabilities.

The lawsuit addressed frequent issues families with special needs students typically face related to screening, services, discipline and enrollment. All public schools in New Orleans have been subject to twice-a-year monitoring specific to those categories for the last five years.

Schools have gotten better at complying with special education law over time, but Winkler said charters continue to rack up violations, and many parents still have to fight to secure appropriate services for their children.

“We're still very concerned with how often and frequently schools are not complying with the consent judgment,” she said. “They're not meeting a certain level of adherence to the federal law, which means that students are going without services, and they’re not getting evaluated.”

Coco said the intention of the guide isn’t to say schools without specialized programs don’t have to serve students with special needs, but instead show families which schools have established programs.

She said there’s also benefits to steering students toward pre-existing programs that have developed expertise and can pool costs to maximize available services.

For example, if a school has eight kids with similar needs, they can hire a team of multiple experts because the cost is spread across them, Coco said. But when a school has just one or two students with special needs, there may not be enough money to provide all of the services that could benefit them.

“The question of should every school have a specialized program, the advocate in me thinks, ‘Yes, that would be amazing,’ and that would be the way to ensure that there's the appropriate level of specialization for every child in our city,” Coco said. “The reality is that’s not where we’re at.”

Coco said her organization has also worked with the district to ensure a spot remains open for students at their original school, that way there’s no harm in enrolling in one of the specialized programs even if it ends up being temporary.

The guide is one recent step the district has taken to address special education concerns, along with proposing funding formula changes and the formation of an independent education service agency (ESA), which could potentially centralize special education services.

“If centralization is on the table, it would be a positive step forward for students in the district,” Winkler said when asked about the options the district is exploring.

At the same time, NOLA-PS and the state are both pursuing an end to the consent agreement responsible for outside monitoring. In October, the judge overseeing the case listened to the district and state’s argument and asked the SPLC to come up with a list of proactive actions it would like the defendants to take.

The district did not respond to a request for comment by publishing time.

In response, the organization drafted a five point plan that calls for the state and the district to enhance special education monitoring, strengthen monitoring standards, better engage parents, provide technical assistance for schools and improve special education evaluation and accountability.

Winkler said even if the judge requires the district to implement SPLC’s five point plan, her organization still believes the outside monitoring system should continue.

“Our position is that that monitoring needs to stay in place even if we do get some of the measures we want put in place,” Winkler said. “We want to be sure that they're working.”

The parties involved plan to meet in February to discuss the state and district’s request as well as the five point plan.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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