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New Beginnings requires ‘major overhaul’ in special ed, charter school official says

Capital One-New Beginnings Charter School Network schools require a “major overhaul” when it comes to special education services.

That’s according to Patricia Ventura, a former Recovery School District charter schools special education specialist who was hired by New Beginnings to implement just such reforms.

Ventura made the statements during the organization’s Feb. 27 board meeting, at which officials also received concerning news about New Beginnings’ finances.

Following visits by RSD officials in December 2011, two New Beginnings schools — Gentilly Terrace and Pierre Capdau elementaries — were placed under corrective action by the state. Ventura said RSD officials were concerned then about how the schools discipline students with disabilities. While the organization has since corrected many of the issues to RSD’s satisfaction, Ventura said New Beginnings needs to be diligent and proactive.

“It could shut down our special education services because we’re out of compliance,” New Beginnings CEO Sametta Brown said.

Ventura, whom Brown hired in December, read some grim special education numbers:

  • New Beginnings schools see a dropout rate of 50 percent, while the state target is no more than 17.7 percent.
  • Ventura said the state target for students testing at a proficient level in English is 68.4 percent. New Beginnings came in at 23.4 percent.
  • In math, the state target is 65.2 percent of students testing at a proficient level. Only 23.7 percent of New Beginnings students fell into that category.

“This is not only statistically significant,” said Ventura, but requires a “major overhaul.”

The New Beginnings Charter School Network oversees three elementary schools — Medard Nelson, Gentilly Terrace and Pierre Capdau — as well as Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

Ventura said intensive corrective action plans are issued specifically around discipline and federal requirements that public schools provide free appropriate education for students will special needs. Both Gentilly Terrace and Pierre Capdau were under an intensive corrective action plan under the order of the Louisiana Department of Education after the December 2011 school site visits revealed problems. But both schools have been released from the corrective plans, she said.

“What were the major problems that we had?” asked Board Chairman Tim Ryan.

Ventura reiterated the stats she read earlier in the meeting, noting New Beginnings schools fell well below the numbers the state would like to see.

Ventura also said the schools have had trouble with truancy.

“That’s another area New Beginnings has been way, way, way out of compliance,” Ventura said. Though she has plans to address truancy issues in her correction plan, she said manpower and money would be limiting factors.

Ventura assured board members that new policies and procedures in place across network schools go above and beyond what the RSD requirements: “I think what we have in place moving forward is going to supersede the correction plan.”

“We’ve known that we’ve had issues for some time,” said board member Carla Major, who was pleased to hear of the reforms.

Member Jade Russell asked what would happen if the schools did not improve.

“They can reduce or deny some MFP funding,” said Ventura of per-pupil state funding.

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity to do a major overhaul,” said Ventura.

Ventura said the schools must do a better job providing early intervention to students who have difficulties learning — prior to those kids being identified as requiring special education services. She also said New Beginnings schools should develop and implement better models for the inclusion of special education students in mainstream classes.

Ventura stressed the network must “always strive for the least restrictive environment” for special education students.

She is working with school leaders to ensure each school continues to make progress in special education.

“This is a big issue,” said Ryan, “We’ve got to get to the point where we should be and where we want to be.”

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