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Singleton charter violated special education law again, school district says

The Orleans Parish school district has issued its most severe warning to James M. Singleton Charter School for the third time this school year for again violating federal and state special education law, officials say.

District officials cited “systematic and student-specific non-compliance” when it came to providing special education services. The Central City charter school is overseen by the nonprofit Dryades YMCA board, a unique set-up for a New Orleans school.

The district’s Senior Equity and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson and her team began their inquiry after a parent contacted the district in mid-January with concerns about a student not receiving services in their Individual Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a contract between the school and parent that outlines special education services.

In the Feb. 7 warning letter, Peterson wrote the “review confirmed the parent’s concern.”

That, she wrote, prompted an in-depth review of other students’ special education files at the 405-student school.

After reviewing files on-site about a week later, the district found “patterns of systematic and student-specific non-compliance as it pertains to the delivery of special education services, including not providing appropriate services under students’ IEPs, both a violation of federal and state law,” Peterson wrote.

School district officials found the school to be noncompliant in several areas of special education. Eight of 14 IEPs the group looked at lacked at least some of required signatures from IEP team members, which can include teachers, parents and social workers. Only seven of 14 files had current IEPs, reviewed within the past year. And just two of 14 files showed evidence of students receiving services required by their IEP.

IEPs require that students be provided special education services, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy or counseling, for a certain amount of time. In one file, officials “observed less SPED minutes being provided than what is stated in IEP.” In another file, there was no evaluation of the student’s needs included as part of the IEP file.

The district told the F-rated charter school to hire a third-party monitor to oversee special education for the remainder of the school year. District spokeswoman Ambria Washington said the school “hired Educational Diagnostic Services and Consulting of Louisiana as their third-party monitor, and Speducation Evaluation Service, L.L.C for special education technical support with evaluations.”

In a statement, Singleton’s school leader Tia Robertson told The Lens that students’ triennial re-evaluations, one of the district’s concerns, “are in progress for completion.”

The warning letter also requires Singleton to ensure students with disabilities take state tests with appropriate accommodations. In the wake of testing problems in the spring 2017, the state voided the exams of 165 students, over one-third of Singleton’s students. Some were voided because the school was providing special testing accommodations without evidence that the students had IEPs that called for the additional assistance.

Those accommodations can range from extra time to take the test to having someone read it aloud for the student. Within months, the CEO stepped down and four employees were fired. A lawyer for the employees says his clients were innocent.

Eventually, the state cut Singleton’s school letter grade from a C to a D due to the testing irregularities and voided exams. One year later, in 2018, Singleton received an F and the school has submitted an improvement plan to the district.

A pattern of concern

Singleton’s first severe warning this school year came in August of 2018. At the time, it was one of eight New Orleans schools to receive a so-called “level two warning” based upon a third-party monitor’s observations from the 2017-18 school year, required as part of a legal settlement between the Orleans Parish School Board, the state Department of Education and the Southern Poverty Law Center over special education services in New Orleans.  The SPLC lawsuit was brought on behalf of ten students and their families in 2010. The 2015 settlement required an outside monitor to review select schools in the city each year.

In the August warning, the district’s Executive Director of School Performance Dina Hasiotis said the school was not properly tracking students’ academic and functional performance and was concerned about the school providing proper services.

“It is critically important that your organization address the concerns noted by the LDOE immediately,” Hasiotis wrote.

The monitor’s observations also prompted a state-issued corrective action plan. In spite of the ongoing warnings from the Orleans Parish school district, Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said the school is meeting its deadlines and completing requirements under the state plan. She said the state is evaluating whether to allow the school to exit the corrective action plan.

Singleton’s second warning from the Orleans Parish school district this school year was issued Oct. 5 after the school received a complaint for failing to serve a student.

“We have determined James Singleton Charter School did not provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE), including not providing appropriate services under an IEP, both a violation of federal and state law,” Peterson wrote.

Free appropriate public education is a standard used for all students meaning they must be given what they need to progress in the curriculum. Students with special education needs may require more assistance to make progress in the classroom.

Peterson ordered the school to provide and pay for any compensatory services the student had not received.

Washington said the school submitted the required plan to the district by its deadline. “Based on the calculated compensatory minutes that are required, these services are still being delivered.”

Robertson said the district cleared the school of the October warning on Nov. 20.

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About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.