Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans is once again the center of controversy over school policy and a factional dispute between two groups of parents. At issue: adding an additional grade level in 2015-16.

The French-immersion school has been planning to add one grade per year as students advance. The sixth grade would be added separately, requiring an enrollment of students already proficient in French.

At a facilities committee meeting on April 31, parents sounded off on both sides of the issue. Supporters claim the school has an obligation to follow its charter, while opponents claim the grade was added due to cronyism between certain individual parents and members of school’s founding board who have since resigned due to prior controversies at the school.

At issue is the organization’s plan for a high school that draws students from other French language programs, such as International School of Louisiana, Audubon, or Ecole Bilingue.

Filling a sixth grade from the city’s small pool of French-proficient students could antagonize those schools and ultimately reduce the high school transfers envisioned in Lycée’s charter, some board members fear.

In an emotional public comment, founding board member Joy van Buskirk voiced this view. She acknowledged that she yielded to pressure from other board members in voting to add out-of-sequence grades to the charter.

The grade levels in question were a second grade that was added in 2012-13, and the planned sixth grade in 2015-16, van Buskirk said. Parents close to certain board members wanted to move their individual children to the school at specific times, and she acceded after first resisting the maneuvers, she said.

“I think that what we did was wrong,” she said. She also expressed concern about the wisdom of  “raiding” students from other French-immersion programs.

Committee member and PTO president Mary Dwyer offered a contrary view. She said that the addition of a sixth grade in 2015-16 would beef up the middle school ahead of the high school launch.

“There’s a community out there that’s hanging on the promise of our charter,” Dwyer said.

After the 15-minute public comment period ended, Dwyer read and described two additional public comment emails from parents who supported her position.

However, at the board’s public meeting on April 21, members had stated publicly that there was no plan to add a sixth grade in 2015-16.

Committee member Mary Jacobs Jones explained the inconsistency by saying that the board had been unaware of the plan to add both a sixth and a fifth grade in the same year. She said the board had previously kicked the can down the road on that issue while dealing with more pressing issues, such as the search for a new building.

A second grade (comprised of students now in third grade) was successfully added out of sequence in 2012-13.

The Lens has requested results of any comprehensive tests to evaluate the academic performance of that student pool.  Board chair Tim Gray, who handles public information requests for the school, said that the only comprehensive test taken was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and that the school had not been provided any info on how the class had performed as a whole.

However, Riverside Publishing, which publishes the Iowa Test, provides a comprehensive report to the school along with scores. If the school elects to score its own test, the company provides a “Norms and Scores Conversion Guide” which shows the school how to create its own comprehensive report based on the individual tests. Gray said the school never received a report.*

Louisiana law says such records are to be provided immediately to the public upon request, or within three days if for some reason the records are not in the school’s immediate possession. The report, provided two weeks after the initial request, contained one number: 50.85 percent, the class’ overall performance.

The school subsequently provided the class’ rankings broken down by subject:

  • Reading:  57 percent
  • Language:  46.1 percent
  • Mathematics:   50.5 percent

The school declined to provide individual test scores, saying that they might somehow be used to identify individual students.

State law puts the burden on a school to prove why a record should not be made public. Gray cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act but could not cite any specific sections of the law that preclude release of the requested information.

Asked what section said that testing numbers could be considered private, protected information, Gray conceded that there is no “bright blue line” in the act which supports his position. The federal act describes how to redact personal identifiers from student information so it can be provided to requesters, and does not forbid the release of any documents or data.

*Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Gray said the school hadn’t received a “Norms and Scores Conversion Guide”; he said the school hadn’t received a comprehensive report. (May 23, 2014)