Last Wednesday, Allison Cruz headed to her daughter Eva’s school, Morris Jeff Community School, to find out, finally, if the girl would qualify for gifted services, reserved for students who are tested and deemed capable of especially high academic performance. Before she left the house, Cruz told the nine-year-old that no matter what happened that day, she was immensely proud of her.
The meeting was the culmination of what Cruz described as more than a year of effort, seven evaluation requests, by her count, and countless emails — returned and unreturned — before Eva was tested in June.
Under state law, gifted students — like students with learning disabilities — are considered “students with exceptionalities.” They’re eligible for special education services, and their school districts are eligible for additional funding to accommodate them.
According to Cruz, getting Morris Jeff Community School to test Eva took more than 400 days. Last month, she and her husband filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, asking for an investigation into the school’s special education screening processes and whether they violated state and federal laws.
Morris Jeff’s CEO Patricia Perkins said the school screens students in the spring and then tests those that pass the screening.
“At the time of the screening in 2018, we did not have a request from the parent to screen,” Perkins wrote in an email. “Once her request came in we put her daughter on the list for the next screening in spring of 2019.”
Perkins did not immediately respond to a question about when students were screened and tested in 2018.
About an hour before last week’s meeting with educational diagnostician Juliana Smith, Cruz pondered the importance of Eva’s test results and whether they’d effectively be null and void. That’s because two weeks earlier, the state dismissed her complaint. Charter schools, like Morris Jeff and every other public school in New Orleans, don’t have to follow state law for gifted services, the response said.
“I got a response back saying, in fact, the school is exempt from the state laws because of their public charter status, which was shocking because nobody at the state, or our special educator friends who were coaching us, knew that or knew to tell us that,” Cruz said.
Officials from the state department of education and the NOLA Public Schools district — which is made up entirely of charter schools — confirmed to The Lens that the response Cruz received was accurate. Though Louisianan charter schools must follow federal special education law, which doesn’t apply to gifted students, they are exempt from the state law on “students with exceptionalities,” which does.
In Morris Jeff’s empty cafeteria, Smith gave Cruz the results. Eva is indeed considered gifted and will qualify for special services.
But Cruz had trouble reconciling what Smith was saying with what she’s learned over the last month. She expressed frustration with how long the process had taken while Smith was emphatic that she, a contractor who tests students over the summer for Morris Jeff, had followed her legal obligations.
“I’m really unclear about what the school actually has to do if they’re exempt from these laws,” Cruz said later. “Because throughout this process we were presented with all this paperwork that had timelines and very jargony jargon language on it and it all seemed very official. … And you think ‘Ok, I’m being protected by this process.’ ”
‘Over 400 days’
The complaint Cruz and her husband filed with the Louisiana Department of Education in July detailed what she described as a 15-month saga of compelling Morris Jeff to conduct a gifted exam for their daughter.
In April 2018, Eva saw a friend leaving class, and she wanted to join her. The then-7-year-old started attending the sessions and told her mother.
Nearly a month later, Cruz learned they were called “extended IB lessons” but could find nothing about them on the school’s website.
The “extended IB projects” Eva participated in can be used to provide gifted services. For students with special education needs, parents and the school enter into a contract called an Individualized Education Program. An IEP is considered an educational roadmap and is protected by state and federal law, namely the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Cruz started asking for more information about gifted services.
The teacher told Cruz that gifted screenings occurred in the fall and spring. A few weeks later Cruz requested gifted testing in August.
Late that month, Morris Jeff Coordinator of Student Support Services Jen Kitner wrote that the school had switched to screening students in the spring.
On September 2, 2018, Cruz wrote back, “I don’t want to wait until spring to have her evaluated, I’d like the process to begin now. If she is gifted I don’t want her to miss this year of instruction. Please let me know what I need to do to get this started now.”
In total, the Cruz family made eight “explicit requests to the special education team and the principal,” before Eva was tested, she wrote in the complaint. “The screening was finally conducted in June 2019.”
“It was over 400 days between our first request and her evaluation,” Cruz wrote.
On the day of her test, Cruz had to pick up Eva from a summer camp and bring her to the school, noting that could be a great inconvenience for some parents.
Eva said she had to do 50 math problems in three minutes, describing the exam to The Lens and her parents.
“Today, I took a test where I had to sound out big words,” she said. She also described an exercise as, “What picture doesn’t belong?”
By July, Eva’s results had yet to come in. Cruz sent the complaint on July 9. On July 16, the family received the dismissal letter from Department of Education attorney Parris Taylor.
“State law exempts approved public charter schools from mandatory compliance with the gifted and talented statutes and the Department regulations that are applicable to public schools with students who are eligible for gifted and talented individualized education programs and related services,” Taylor wrote.
The charter school exception
Louisiana state special education law applies to gifted and talented students. It does not, however, apply to charter schools, state and Orleans Parish officials said.
When The Lens inquired, both the Department of Education and the NOLA Public Schools district confirmed that the dismissal letter was correct.
Charter schools are designed to be autonomous, disconnected from a central bureaucracy and free to make their own hiring decisions, set their own calendars and pick their own curriculum, unlike traditional public schools. The state’s charter school law provides a list of rules and regulations that all schools, including charters, must follow. The special education law is not among them.
A statement sent by NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Ambria Washington, attributed to the district, said that provisions in the state charter law “express (by omission) that Louisiana statutory and regulatory requirements for [gifted/talented] do not automatically apply to charters.”
Charter schools do have to comply with federal laws related to “individuals with disabilities” by providing special education services. But IDEA, the federal law that governs special education, applies to children with disabilities that “adversely affect” their academic performance, not gifted students.
The district is still under a federal consent judgment for special education services after several families, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued the state Department of Education in 2010. The consent decree requires an outside firm to monitor the local school district and its charters and produce quarterly reports.
Victor Jones, Senior Supervising Attorney with the SPLC, said he was surprised to hear how long it took Cruz to secure an evaluation.
“Gifted is a form of special education,” Jones said. “If you pass the test, the school has to give an IEP and implement that.”
Even so, he said it’s not a violation of the consent decree that New Orleans charters are not required to follow state gifted services law. The legal agreement only applies to services for students with disabilities, not gifted students.
Jones said he knows costs can be a concern for schools.
“As a practical matter I’ve encouraged charter schools to participate in some resource sharing.”
Sydni Dunn, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said that even though charters don’t have to offer gifted services under state law, the Orleans Parish School Board and the NOLA Public Schools district have to accommodate gifted students. Since as of this school year, the district doesn’t run any schools directly, one way to meet that requirement is to put it into schools’ charter contracts.
“OPSB, as a charter authorizer, has the authority to require charters to do things not specifically required in state law (as part of the charter agreement negotiation process) if they believe that such a requirement will address student needs,” Dunn wrote in an email.
It’s unclear how many schools provide the services or explicitly test students. But in Morris Jeff’s charter agreement, it appears to be an option, not a requirement.
Morris Jeff’s contract with OPSB states, “Shall Charter Operator choose to conduct evaluations and provide related services for gifted and/or talented students, it shall do so in accordance with all applicable state law and regulations.”
The district, through its local funding formula, provides specific funding to charter schools for students designated gifted or talented. But the district doesn’t appear to track how the school uses that money.
Asked if the district provided gifted services to students who might not be able to access them at their charter school, Washington provided the following statement, again attributed to the NOLA Public Schools district: “We provide information to families on all of our schools and the programs they offer through our enrollment system — including information on gifted and talented.”
The district did not answer a question about whether that money was tracked, instead providing the following statement: “All schools receive funding for any designated G/T student.”
‘Our family has every advantage’
What Cruz has learned over the last year concerns her for other families and raised questions for her about how parents without middle-class incomes, or higher, and scheduling flexibility can navigate the system.
Cruz is the director of academic programs for Newcomb-Tulane College. Her husband, Brian Cruz, is a doctor.
“Our family has every advantage. Both my husband and I are highly educated. We speak English. We have white privilege. We have every privilege.” she said.
She can run out of work at a moment’s notice, she added. “I can jump in my car. I have my own transportation.”
The list goes on, she said, and she feels like it was necessary for her to secure an evaluation for her daughter.
“So it was just so shocking to me that it was so hard, because if I didn’t have all of those advantages or the lack of fear to push back or to make people angry, because I’m not afraid of retaliation,” she said. “I feel like that’s how we got to this end point.”
Also, Cruz said they were familiar with the system after undergoing special education testing for their younger son, who also attends Morris Jeff.
“He had behavioral problems at school and got pulled into the testing process,” she said.
“In the process of him getting tested for his behavioral problems somebody happened to take note that he may be gifted,” Cruz said. “It turns out, lo and behold, he has two designations.”
Children with two designations, gifted plus a disability, are not uncommon.
Cruz is thankful that Smith, the same educational diagnostician who tested her daughter, took note of her son’s potential to be gifted.
“Seeing him go through the process made me think, wow, how many other kids … might also be gifted and need extra positive attention at school that they’re not getting because nobody took up for them?” she said. “Or they didn’t have private psychologists. Or friends who were able to coach them.”
On Wednesday, Smith told Cruz the school should contact her soon to develop an IEP for Eva. The Cruz family is also working on an IEP update for their son but they have questions about how the process will go.
“So what do they even have to do at all?” she asked. “I don’t even know and it doesn’t sound like anyone really knows what they have to do.”
Cruz said she truly believes in public education. “It’s a public good.”
“I reject that it has to be so challenging to educate your children in a public environment,” she said. “I just reject that full flat out.”