A month before Brady, a 14-year-old with Down syndrome and autism, is supposed to start school, his mother doesn’t know what sort of classroom he’ll be in or who his teacher will be.
But she knows more than she did a month ago, when it wasn’t clear whether his new charter school would accommodate her request that Brady work with a teacher one-on-one, away from students that can make him anxious.
New Orleans met Brady a few weeks ago. He bounced from school to school until his mother found a special room, built specially for another student with a budgeted $130,000, at the old McDonogh 35 building in Treme.
Brady is now too old for his current school, and the school district plans to gut the old McDonogh 35 building. So earlier this year his mom was on the hunt for a high school, like many other families navigating charter schools in New Orleans — except that Brady needs a lot more help than most students.
The day The Lens published its story, LaFleur got a call from staffers at Morris Jeff Community School and the Orleans Parish school district. They told her Brady will be enrolled at Morris Jeff as a ninth-grader, but he’ll attend class at the new McDonogh 35 facility.
“He’ll be using a room at McDonogh 35 as a Morris Jeff student,” LaFleur said. “I haven’t seen where they’re going to put him yet. I just know they are using the school.”
It’s a bit of a puzzling arrangement, she said, because she wanted him to attend McDonogh 35 all along. But she is happy he’ll be able to use special education space there.
Brady was assigned to Morris Jeff through the city’s centralized enrollment lottery. LaFleur contacted the school as soon as he was assigned there so she could make sure they could accommodate her son’s needs.
When our story ran in late June, they still hadn’t ironed out Brady’s arrangements.
Read the special report: “Brady’s room: One family navigates special education in New Orleans”
Federal law requires that school districts educate all students who walk through their doors, regardless of their special education needs. The district — in New Orleans, sometimes a charter school is its own district — is required to provide a free and appropriate education to each student and ensure the student has the support he needs to progress in the curriculum.
The details of how that will be done are laid out in an individualized education plan, or an IEP. It’s a contract between the student’s family and the school.
They can be complicated documents, Brady’s for example, includes a behavior plan that dictates how often he needs attention and how to watch him when he’s near other students.
In traditional school districts, the central office is responsible for placing special education students at schools and ensuring they receive the proper services. Depending on the student’s needs, that could range from having a special education teacher on staff to placing the student on a campus designed for a specific disability.
In New Orleans, nearly all traditional schools have been replaced by independent charter schools after Hurricane Katrina. So those responsibilities are divided between dozens of independent charter organizations. Most charter schools in New Orleans can’t turn any student away. But they don’t have the backing of a centralized bureaucracy.
Starting this spring, when LaFleur learned McDonogh 35 wouldn’t accept ninth graders for the following school year, she began touring high schools. She asked the district for advice on which school to pick.
School district staff suggested Morris Jeff because it’s expanding to a second building, Joseph S. Clark High School. But Brady needs to be on the first floor for safety reasons, and the school is leasing only the upper floors at Clark.
Last week, Morris Jeff Principal Patricia Perkins confirmed the Orleans Parish School Board has arranged space for one of her students at McDonogh 35.
“We are using space there for one of our students that we could not accommodate on the first floor at Clark,” Perkins said. Schools generally can’t discuss individual students due to privacy.
She said she expects to get an agreement in writing from the district soon.
Orleans Parish School Board spokeswoman Dominique Ellis would not confirm the arrangement.
“At this time there has been no decision on whether or not any other school will be in the McDonogh 35 building next year, but one could be forthcoming in the next several weeks,” she wrote in an email.
There are still a lot of things to coordinate, LaFleur said.
She wonders about small things, like where will Brady will eat lunch, whether the food will be brought over from Morris Jeff and if the school’s schedule will align with McDonogh 35.
And she wonders about big things, like what room he’ll be in, who his teacher will be and what day he’ll start.
LaFleur said Morris Jeff school leaders know it’s better for Brady to be closer to the entrance of the school. His anxiety could make it difficult to get him down a long hallway crowded with students. That’s one thing she likes about the new McDonogh 35: Its special education hallway is near the front of the building.
She said Brady made a lot of progress in the space at the old McDonogh 35 because he had such a great teacher.
He’s had a new teacher every year, but she hopes Brady can keep his current one. That would’ve been easy if Brady had been allowed to enroll at McDonogh 35 as a ninth-grader, she said, because the teacher is employed by the parish.
LaFleur said Brady’s individualized education plan team will meet before the end of July. That should provide more clarity on what his freshman year will look like.