The state Department of Education cited Sophie B. Wright Charter School for keeping two homeless students out of class for a month because they didn’t have school uniforms.
The agency informed the Uptown charter school in May that it had violated the terms of its charter agreement by failing to follow a federal law that requires schools to change policies that impede homeless students from learning or attending school.
The mother of the two students contacted the Recovery School District on Feb. 8. She said her children were prevented from starting school at Wright because they didn’t have uniforms.
The Recovery School District oversees the school, which serves grades 7 through 12.
Education department employees told school staff twice that the children were considered homeless and the school should accommodate them. On Feb. 16, an education department staffer told the school to provide the children with uniforms, using federal funds dedicated for homeless students.
Yet, the children “were told on at least one occasion by Wright staff that they could not attend school until the uniforms were monogrammed,” Laura Hawkins, deputy chief of staff for the Recovery School District, wrote in a letter to the school.
Monogramming costs $5 at the school.
The children were kept out of class until March 8, Hawkins wrote.
“Sophie B. Wright did not intentionally keep any student out of school,” Principal Sharon Clark told The Lens in an email Tuesday. “It has never been our intention to ever keep a student from attending school.”
James Kelly, executive director of Covenant House, which provides emergency shelter and transitional housing for the homeless, was taken aback when told what happened.
“Why would we focus on whether or not they had a uniform?” Kelly asked. “Isn’t that simply just ostracizing them? Isn’t that just creating more trauma for them?”
Kelly said he wasn’t sure if this has happened before in the city.
“A school should be bending over backwards” to help homeless children, he said. “Society should be wrapping their arms around them.”
According to the Data Center, there were 137 homeless children in the New Orleans area in 2015. In 2014, there were 220.
All Recovery School District charters operate under its Charter School Performance Compact. A notice of breach, such as the one issued to Wright, is the second of three levels of intervention.
To return to good standing, the school had to provide the students with the opportunity for make-up work or tutoring this summer or at the beginning of next school year.
The state also required Wright to amend its uniform policy to clarify that assistance can be offered to homeless families, and to post the update on its website.
Hawkins said the school has completed both and it’s now in good standing.
However, the uniform policy page on the school website doesn’t say anything about homeless students.
And as of Wednesday morning, the 2016-17 handbook had not been updated either. It referred to the federal law on homeless students and said, “Should you have questions concerning your specific rights under this provision, please contact the Guidance Counselor.”
Wednesday afternoon, the school added this sentence: “Students who are classified as homeless are exempt from following the uniform policy and must be admitted to school immediately.”
This story was updated after publication to note that the handbook was updated Wednesday. (June 22, 2017)