New Orleans’ public schools have undergone a lot of change over the last 15 years. But while test scores and graduation rates are up, many New Orleans schools have fallen short when it comes to special education.
The district’s schools entered a settlement agreement in 2015 over a failure to adequately serve students with disabilities. Recent reporting by Jessica Williams of the The Times Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, shows deep problems persist. WWNO’s Jess Clark sat down with Williams to discuss her reporting on a New Orleans father who struggled for years to get special education services for his daughter.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your reporting goes really deep on the experience of one New Orleans family. You follow Dennis Lewis whose daughter Denesha Gray graduated from New Orleans public schools last year. And their story as you tell it begins with this really heartbreaking moment involving a handful of change. Can you tell us that story?
So one of the things that stuck out to me when Dennis and I were talking, it was the moment that he sort of illuminated his wife to the fact that Denesha was as far behind as she was. Dennis had been the parent who was showing up to the school meetings and asking for more services for his daughter since about the eighth grade. His wife was less involved in that process and didn't really have a sense of how dire the situation had gotten. He pulled out a $1.27 from his pocket and he said to his wife, 'I'm going to bet you that she's not going to be able to count this money.' And sure enough she couldn't count it. Denesha was 18 years old at that point. And that was the first time that his wife fully understood how far behind she was.
Q: Has Denesha graduated high school?
She has. She's graduated high school, from McDonogh 35 High School, and she's now living in Houston with her sister. She works as a home health aid.
Q: I think that the question that most people have when they hear this story, is just like how did this happen? How was this person able to go through a system of schools, to graduate, and not be able to count out a handful of change? And so you went back, and you traced Denesha's entire school career. Are you able to point to any specific moments where things went wrong?
What we saw was from very early on when even when she was attending schools in Texas as a result of Hurricane Katrina, teachers recognized that something was wrong. They enrolled her in a program essentially designed to give students who needed help with their reading. In Texas, Denesha was also diagnosed with ADHD. In about 2010 the family moved back to New Orleans and then her diagnosis was also revealed to the Recovery School District (RSD). She enrolled in a program that was at Mary D. Coghill Elementary, that is designed for students who have some educational challenges. But it was not the level of support that she would have gotten under what's called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). And that's typically given to students who qualify for special education services. And generally it's more expensive and it's more time consuming to create those types of plans for students.
Q: Eventually she does get an IEP. When did that finally happen?
She did not receive her IEP until she was 18 years old. It was December of her senior year of high school, and they came up with a comprehensive set of strategies that teachers were supposed to use to educate her. It's just sad, according to her father and according to many people who read this story, that those strategies were only in place for six months of her entire career.
Q: What do school and district leaders say about the problems that your reporting revealed in this story?
Since we began reporting on this story, the school district has made a commitment to expand the programs that exist now for children with special needs, children with emotional and behavioral disorders like the ones that Denesha had. They have made a commitment to fund the New Orleans Center for Resilience. It is a therapeutic day program for students with ADHD, with bipolar disorder, with other emotional and behavioral issues all the way through high school. When Denehsa was going to school, that program was very new, and it did not serve high school students. Now there's going to be a program that's going to help students who may be in her situation to get on grade-level, or to get where they need to be, and have the support that they need.
Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.