International High School of New Orleans got in trouble this summer for discouraging students assigned through the citywide lottery from enrolling at the school, according to a formal warning issued by the Louisiana Department of Education.

This summer, school staff told one family that their child had missed the deadline to register even though the child was on the school’s roster. They told another family they needed a printed assignment letter to enroll. Both violate enrollment policy, according to the Department of Education.

This warning comes after a similar one in 2015 for preventing or discouraging three students from enrolling.

In one of those cases, a parent was told he couldn’t enroll his child in the spring because standardized tests were about to start. In another, a school administrator discouraged a parent from enrolling her son, suggesting the school wouldn’t be able to handle her child’s needs.

The incidents in 2015 and this year suggest that “compliance with enrollment policy remains a systemic problem at the school,” wrote Laura Hawkins, the Recovery School District’s deputy chief of staff, in the letter this summer.

2Enrollment incidents cited this summer3Incidents cited in 2015

International High principal Sean Wilson challenged the state’s allegations. The school “has not prevented admission or dishonored the admissions right of any student,” he wrote in an email.

Charter schools like International High School are publicly funded but privately run. They can choose curriculum and staff as long as they meet annual academic and financial requirements.

However, nearly all New Orleans charters must participate in EnrollNOLA, a centralized enrollment lottery system.

Before EnrollNOLA, schools didn’t know until the first day of school how many students they would have. Parents had to apply separately to each school.

Even after the lottery system was set up, critics have claimed charter schools cherry-pick students. In a 2015 report, a third of principals surveyed in the 2012-13 school year admitted they tried to enroll high achievers.*

Two incidents at International High this summer

A formal warning letter dated Aug. 7 spells out the specific concerns.

In the first case, a school employee told a family in June their child didn’t have a seat at the school because they had missed the deadline to register.

There was a May deadline for students to accept school assignments handed out through EnrollNOLA, commonly referred to as OneApp. However, most schools didn’t enforce that deadline and gave families until July to register.

Gabriella Fighetti, director of EnrollNOLA, said schools had to tell her office whether they would enforce the seat acceptance deadline. International High School did not say it would enforce it, she said.

Although school employees thought the student “had been dropped for not accepting their seat,” school records showed the student was enrolled, Hawkins wrote in the warning letter.

“Therefore, the student was entitled to his or her seat,” she wrote.

“These actions suggest that … compliance with enrollment policy remains a systemic problem at the school.”—Laura Hawkins, Recovery School District

EnrollNOLA is getting rid of the seat acceptance deadline this year because most schools didn’t enforce it, Fighetti said.

In a separate incident this summer, another parent “alleged that the school required a printed assignment letter as a condition for enrollment,” Hawkins wrote. That’s not allowed.

Wilson told The Lens his staff “did not tell any family or student that they needed paperwork from [the Recovery School District] to gain admission to the school.”

The Recovery School District “has not quantified their claim, and we adhered to policy for enrolling all students who sought enrollment,” he wrote in an email.

Hawkins wrote that she didn’t know whether other students had experienced similar problems when trying to enroll.

She outlined a third violation involving the school’s practice of submitting discharge requests to EnrollNOLA that lack the required information about why students had left the school.

Several things can happen when schools fail to discharge students promptly, Hawkins wrote. Students may not be identified as truant, parents may have trouble re-enrolling their children in new schools, or students who want to enroll at International may not be able to.

School discouraged three students from enrolling in 2015

In March 2015, a student was assigned to International High School. When her father went to the school to complete registration, a staff member told him it would be “futile” to enroll because the school was about to start spring break and standardized testing.

If a school is in the middle of testing, it can ask a new student to wait until testing is over before they attend class. But the school is not allowed to prevent the student from enrolling.

The father returned after spring break, when he was again prevented from registering. He was told to complete an application for the fall, according to the June 2015 letter from Patrick Walsh, head of charter accountability for the state Department of Education.

The family was “penalized” by immigration authorities because the girl wasn’t enrolled in school, Walsh wrote.

In April 2015, another student was assigned to the high school. When his family tried to enroll, they were told to complete an application for the fall and “to seek other school options for their son.”

“Ms. Lopez also directed [the mother] to attend an orientation at the school to assure the school would be the best setting or if she would like to pursue other options.”—Patrick Walsh, state Department of Education

Lynette Lopez, who was then the school’s enrollment counselor, told the Recovery School District’s Office of Student Enrollment that the student was not “a good fit,” according to Walsh’s warning letter.

Lopez is now chief of staff at International High School.

The family also was given “inaccurate information” regarding the student’s right to remain in school until the age of 21, Walsh wrote.

The student was enrolled after the Department of Education intervened.

A third student did not end up enrolling after his mother met with Lopez, who said his special education files would need to be reviewed. Lopez said the boy would receive special education services in the cafeteria because there was a lack of classrooms on the first floor.

“Ms. Lopez also directed [the mother] to attend an orientation at the school to assure the school would be the best setting or if she would like to pursue other options,” Walsh wrote. “Following this conversation the mother concluded that she would need to apply to attend another school in order for her son’s needs to be adequately met.”

Walsh wrote that other evidence “illustrates a similar pattern for families attempting to enroll at International High School which includes creating barriers, providing misinformation, and directing families to seek enrollment in other schools.”

“The system as designed seems to discredit the work done at schools, and it seems to arbitrarily wage accusations without seeking clarity before issuing Notices of Breach.”—International High principal Sean Wilson

International High School, he wrote, “is an open enrollment public charter school that is required to serve any and all students. Students assigned to the school must be enrolled immediately and appropriately regardless of age, Special Education status, and/or the time of year at which students enroll.”

New Orleans charter schools have been criticized for failing to serve special-education students. Ten families sued the Orleans Parish School Board and the state education department in 2010 for failing to follow federal law. The case was settled in 2014, and both agencies are being monitored under a consent decree.

More recently, a charter network inflated how much time would be needed to teach special-education students’, in a scheme to get additional state funding to cover a budget shortfall. Another charter failed to identify and properly serve special education students.

Same violation, same fix

In both warning letters, the state notified International High School that it had broken state rules governing charters.

After this summer’s violations, the Department of Education required International High staff to attend training on EnrollNOLA policy — the same remedy it required in 2015.

Wilson criticized the Recovery School District, which oversees EnrollNOLA, for not allowing schools to appeal state administrators’ conclusions that they had broken the rules.

“The system as designed seems to discredit the work done at schools,” he told The Lens, “and it seems to arbitrarily wage accusations without seeking clarity before issuing Notices of Breach.”

Hawkins said the high school is back in good standing after completing the series of trainings.

*Clarification: The report was published in 2015, but the survey was conducted before that. (Nov. 2, 2017)

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...