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ReNEW CEO encouraged retesting of students so network could get grant

The head of a five-school charter network in New Orleans put pressure on school leaders to increase test scores — even encouraging them to retest struggling students and offering to pay for inducements for the kids  — so the organization could earn money from a national nonprofit, according to emails released Thursday.

“If you did have the students take it and they we not motivated to do their best PLEASE regive it next week,” ReNEW Schools CEO Gary Robichaux wrote in a May 8 email, complete with emoticon. “I will pay for any incentives you would like to give the kids for doing their best on this FINAL test!! :-)”

The exam at issue, the STAR assessment, is not one that’s used as part of the state accountability program. It was chosen by the network to measure growth, with the test given at the beginning and end of the academic year.

Last month, the top two officials at ReNEW’s SciTech Academy abruptly resigned, and Robichaux said at the time it was because of testing irregularities — including students retaking the test. Head of School Tim Hearin and Principal Alex Perez also let students take the test for one another and take the tests at home, Robichaux said then. Neither Hearin nor Perez could be reached for comment today.

Reached today by phone, Robicheaux now says having the students retake the test is acceptable. However, he said because of the other irregularities, the network would not rely on or submit the results from the test to support a grant request.

“But obviously I’m not going to give it to them now with what happened at SciTech,” he said.

Likewise, ReNEW board President Brian Weimer wasn’t troubled by the retesting.

“My understanding is that with STAR, it is permissible to retest students,” he said. “The board takes all these issues very seriously and we’re aware and cooperating with the state and will do what we need to do to resolve any problems and issues.”

In the email, released Thursday evening by ReNEW, Robichaux explains why improved test scores are critical.

“Leaders, in order to secure funding from Charter School Growth Fund we need to present them our STAR data later this month,” he writes. “Of course they will be looking for growth in this nationally normed test over this year.”

The Charter School Growth Fund is a nonprofit based in Colorado that supports charter schools with underserved students. The organization released this statement in response to a question about whether the test irregularities would affect ReNEW’s eligibility for funding:

We look at many factors when considering applicants, including achievement results. We ask applicants to take a nationally normed test to measure student growth, and we expect them to adhere to certain recognized standards around test administration.

Robichaux’s email was passed along to school leaders and also includes this line from Sumeet Goil, the network’s director of data and assessment:

“It’s even more important now considering this data factors into the new teacher compensation system.”

Eventually Hearin passes along the email to two people. ReNEW has redacted one of the names in accordance with their whistleblower policy.

It reads:

“check out this email, and the attached doc, and please get it done. remember that all kids need to grow significantly. whatever it takes bro. delete this message. hit me up with questions in person. failure is not an option!”

In an interview two weeks ago, Robichaux said grant money was not at stake. He said the Charter School Growth Fund would look at PARCC scores, a new state test, but the email released Thursday contradicts that statement.

Though ReNEW provided a sheaf of emails to The Lens in response to a June 1 public-records request, they noted they were withholding one out of concerns about revealing a whistleblower. When The Lens asked the network to cite the legal justification, ReNEW Chief of Staff Colleen Mackay instead sent over this email thread.

Renaissance Learning, the company that authors the STAR exam, did not return a request for comment.

The network alerted the Louisiana Department of Education after The Lens published its first story. A representative sent this today in response to questions:

“The Department continues to work with ReNEW Schools to gather information related to concerns over assessments and will soon determine if further inquiries are warranted. At this time, the Department has not issued any notices to ReNEW Schools.”

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  • nickelndime

    When the STATE is FOR YOU, who can be AGIN YOU!? Gary has done quite a few low things during his CEO tenure (and gawd only knows what else he did while employed at the LDOE), including messing around with TRSL contributions (and all Gary says is, “It’s acceptable.”
    I’m glad that there is a whistleblower out there. That’s how you (collectively speaking) topple the “house of cards.” Great work, THE LENS and reporter MARTA JEWSON. If I had information, I would turn some other (expletive deleted) in. OH WAIT, I DO! LMAspO! 06/19/2015 3:45 PM DST USA

  • HalfFullClass

    Marta Jewson, another fine piece of reporting. This update reminded me of some comments Gary Robichaux made to the N O Advocate when the story first broke. Here is a link to that story.
    http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/12549379-123/school-leaders-at-scitech-academy

    Please note the comment he made about how 5 or 6 teachers returned to reNEW after Herin’s departure, This man has no moral compass and must face a consequence for his actions. To call G ROBichaux a snake oil salesman is an insult to all reptiles and anyone in sales. 06/19/2015 7:07 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Again you are on point, “HalfFullClass!” ASP thanks you too. Calling “Gar Gar” a snake oil salesman is an insult to the reptilian world. He fits in better in the insect world – like the louse he is. GUFFAW!!! 06/19/2015 9:04 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    If Gary Robichaux says that it is acceptable (policy) for students to retake the tests (or in some cases, have more proficient students take the test for other students), then why were Head of School Timmy and Principal Alex “told” (raised eyebrows Pastorek style) to resign!
    An audit last year (and gawd knows those audits don’t get any better in as much as the charter board pays for it) shows that Gar Gar got creative with teacher pension money. I guess that is acceptable too.
    Who is actually running ReNEW? No, don’t tell me…
    06/20/2015 2:41 AM DST USA

  • Lee Barrios

    And John White and BESE continue to turn their heads and to say that charters are held to a higher level of accountability than traditional schools. Given enough time, many of these people would hand themselves but in the meantime children (and teachers) are being harmed.

  • nickelndime

    Gary Robichaux should have been “THE FACE” for the TULANE conference that was held this week and ended today (June 20). What is going on in New Orleans in public education is NOT CHOICE. It is grand larceny.

    One CEO for Sarah Usdin’s New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) wasn’t enough. Now, there is a co-CEO, Michael Stone. The rationale for two CEOs would be what? (1) Four hands can grab better than two; (2) One CEO can watch the other, sorta like a system of checks and balances; (3) Each CEO can work a 12-hour shift so all of MZ-Z-Z SARAH’s phone calls can be answered on the first ring; (4) …

    We could go on and on and on. Michael Stone is looking to 2025. Can this go on another 10 years!

    How many of you out there “see” where this is going? I think New Orleans is going to … (Fill in the blank.)

    06/20/2015 6:50 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    While this group at the TULANE “education” conference this week looks like they is patting each other on the back, they is actually giving each other “the police pat.” They know they can’t trust each other. 06/20/2015 7:55 PM DST USA

  • Elizabeth K. Jeffers

    Marta, if you keep digging on ReNew, you will find much more.

  • nickelndime

    Yep! Yep! There are more whistleblowers around than you think. The State tries to control it – including the LLA, and so do the “so-called independent audit firms” (LaPorte Sehrt Romig Hand is only one – find out which entities in the education sector this firm represents). Oh, my bad – that also includes the OPSB. Expensive charter “counselors” may call the whistleblowers “disgruntled former employees,” and that may buy some time, but it won’t last forever, not even in corrupt environments like this.
    06/21/2015 4:45 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “nickelndime” and ASP are on Madrid time – WE are Sarah Usdin’s worst nightmare (12-hour shifts back-to -back). Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) may be able to answer MISSY SARAH’s hotline on the first ring on his shift, but “the dice are loaded,” Baby Sarah. You might want to go back home to Kentucky. LAKEVIEW seems to be doing well on its own. LMAspO! 06/21/2015 5:47 AM DST USA

  • Maria Gawedziarz

    Be careful Marta on which board member you ask. That may be Gary’s boyfriend. And no that is not gossip, it’s fact.

  • nickelndime

    Sounds like conflicted interests… Would they share an address? WE know of a similar situation that occurred in a prestigious selective-admission OPSB high school in New Orleans post-Katrina and the individual quietly (without be dragged through the mud) disappeared.

    Of course, the State is a different matter (follows different rules), and that is why Gary Robichaux has been allowed to lie, cheat, and steal, and remain the ReNEW CEO.

    If the State is FOR YOU, who can BE AGIN YOU.

    Crooked State – Crooked Politicians – Crooked Educational System…
    06/22/2015 6:27 PM DST USAP

  • Marcus Manuel

    You’re absolutely right!!!! How does one become a whistleblower?