Before it closed, Cypress Academy was one of the schools selected for targeted monitoring. The school was well-known for enrolling a high percentage of special education students and logged the highest number of per-student special education service minutes the year it was targeted. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Independent monitors overseeing the Louisiana Department of Education’s work under a federal consent judgment have identified a series of mistakes — ranging from calculation errors to what appears to be sloppy record-keeping — that led the state to monitor the wrong New Orleans schools for special education services. 

In total, over two years, 10 schools that should have been monitored at specific times — based on the terms of the 2015 court settlement — weren’t. That’s according to a 15-page report published Wednesday in the court record of a long-running federal class-action lawsuit over services for students with disabilities in New Orleans. 

Under the terms of the consent decree, the department was supposed to select schools whose records suggested may not be properly identifying, enrolling or educating students with disabilities, based on factors like the amount of time staff members were spending providing required services to students with special education plans. Department employees would then conduct targeted monitoring at those schools by reviewing individual student files, interviewing staff and conducting site visits.

But in 2017 and 2018, the department mistakenly selected 10 schools that didn’t actually meet the criteria for monitoring, meaning other schools that should have been more closely scrutinized were passed over. 

Some of those schools were monitored later, and others are scheduled for monitoring this fall. Last month, the Department of Education argued the problems were a net positive because its led to more schools being monitored in total. Lawyers for the plaintiffs think such make-up monitoring is too little too late, but they are more concerned with what the report shows about the department overall. 

“One aspect of the process is the department’s ability to oversee this complex new decentralized school system,” said Neil Ranu, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who represents the plaintiff class of current and future special education students in New Orleans. “And the nature of these errors tell us they haven’t yet developed that capacity.”

Depending on how the judge feels about them, the state’s errors could extend the four-year-old federal consent decree, which was negotiated to settle a 2010 lawsuit that charged that the city’s charter schools were admitting too few special-needs students and failing to provide proper services to the ones they did enroll. 

Department of Education Spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said the agency alerted the court to errors when they were discovered. 

“The court instructed the Department and the independent monitors to work together to develop and implement remedies,” she wrote in an email. “The Department does not believe that any of these matters affect its continued substantial compliance with the consent judgment.”

The consent judgment requires the state to monitor four areas of special education. Schools are selected by having either the lowest or highest rates of the indicators because that could be a red flag for the quality of special education at the school. 

The report

The monitors’ report boils down to five areas of “observed concern.” 

The Sept. 10 report, produced at U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey’s request, details a multitude of errors that led to the state identifying the wrong schools. 

In one example, the department failed to select schools that were identifying the lowest number of potential special education students and placing them in evaluation. The department was supposed to rank schools by identification rates, selecting the three lowest ones for targeted monitoring. But the ranking for fall 2017 monitoring was done by “site code” number. A site code is simply a school identification code used by the Department of Education for internal record-keeping. 

The report details numerous problems that appear to amount to basic calculation oversights or sorting errors. But the end result was that thousands of New Orleans students’ schools weren’t being monitored for specific special education measures by the state when they should have been, under a federal court order. 

“These reports are meant to tell us whether the department has developed the expertise to oversee the system,” Ranu said. “The answer the report is giving us is no.”

The department’s interpretation of its responsibilities in this case is “essentially school selection,” Ranu said, meaning the department doesn’t believe it has to show improvements for special education students over time, but merely pick the schools that should be targeted for monitoring and regulatory action. And they’re not even doing that, he said. 

“Here they misselected schools to monitor,” Ranu said. “So they’ve failed to meet one of their core responsibilities.”

In another example of their concerns, the monitors say the state simply showed up at the wrong school when attempting to monitor one of Einstein Charter Schools’ four schools. 

At Einstein’s Village De L’Est, 42.1 percent of students with disabilities did not re-enroll at between the 2015-2016 school year and Oct. 1 2016. That put the school on a list for monitoring. Village De L’Est has been closed for asbestos repairs for years and is currently located in portable buildings behind Einstein’s middle school. The monitors report states the department monitored the middle school rather than Einstein Village De L’Est. 

Related services

In both the fall of 2017 and 2018, the department selected the wrong schools to monitor for “related services.” That’s one of the four areas covered by the consent decree. (The other monitored areas are whether schools are identifying and evaluating students for special education services, whether they’re disciplining special education students appropriately and the rate at which students with disabilities are re-enrolling at schools.)

The state was supposed to divide the amount of time New Orleans schools spent providing special services — like speech or physical therapy — by the number of special education students in each school. The idea was to find out which schools were spending the least amount of time, per student, on those services. 

In the fall of 2017, the state monitored the three city schools with the highest related service rate, rather than the three schools with the lowest rates. 

“That is, the charter schools with the least presumed risk (i.e. highest rates of service delivery) were selected for targeted monitoring rather than the schools with the most presumed risk (i.e. lowest rates of Related Service provisions),” the report finds.

The state monitored Cypress Academy, Livingston Collegiate Academy and James M. Singleton Charter School, all with average service minutes above 116 per minute per week. Cypress’ rate was 218 average minutes per student per week. 

During that time, state monitors should have been examining Lusher Charter School, Eleanor McMain Senior High School and McDonogh 35 Academy, which all had rates under five minutes per student per week. 

For the fall 2018 monitoring cycle — based on data from the 2017-2018 school year — the state used total school enrollment, not special education enrollment, in that calculation

As a result of the error, for many schools, the rates recorded by the state appeared to plummet from the 2016-2017 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, according to the state spreadsheets used for selection obtained by The Lens.

Ranu said he finds the range in minutes — in the correctly calculated version from 2016-2017 — concerning. 

“It shows a range from 218 minutes to 0,” he said. “There are schools on this chart that have related service minutes under 5 minutes. The range raises questions about the quality of services throughout the system and whether schools are providing students the services they need.”

Other errors

The monitors also found the state used inaccurate enrollment figures at certain points.

In one case, as Audubon Charter School transitioned to a new site code (a result of becoming its own school district), the school’s special education non re-enrollment rate plummeted as the majority of students enrolled in the new site code. 

“As such, only one student remained documented as enrolled at Audubon under their old or prior year site code 036005, thus resulting in a 1700% rate of students choosing not to re-enroll,” the report states. 

“LDOE staff acknowledged this error and agreed that Audubon Charter School was incorrectly chosen to undergo on-site monitoring in the area of enrollment stability based on an inaccurate non-enrollment rate,” the report says.

Ranu said this should have been a red flag. 

“This unusually high rate of 1700 percent should have been an indicator that something was wrong,” Ranu said. 

The five schools with the highest non re-enrollment rate between the 2016-17 school year and Oct. 1 2017 were monitored in 2018 or are scheduled to be monitored this fall. Two others with high non re-enrollment rates were closed in that time. 

The state was also supposed to monitor schools for Child Find, the part of state law that helps identify students with disabilities and what they need to succeed in school. The judgment ordered the state to monitor the elementary, middle and high school with the lowest rate of new special education identification. 

But the state ranked schools by their site code, rather than a rate showing how many new students with special education needs were identified in the last year. 

“During the school selection process, LDOE staff selected the first OPSB elementary, middle and high school charter site listed on the database as requiring targeted monitoring in the area of Child Find,” monitors state. “As such, school selections were not based on the NOLA/OPSB elementary, middle and high school charter site that reported the lowest “new IDEA identification rate,” as required.

That meant Bethune, Audubon and Warren Easton were monitored while Alice M. Harte Charter School, KIPP Central City Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School should have been. Harte had a new identification rate of 1.1 percent. KIPP Central City Academy and Franklin had a rate of 0 percent, according to the report.

Ranu also pointed out multiple schools in the city had an identification rate of zero. 

“There is information in this report that the public has not seen before that is of importance. For example on page 11 there’s new identification rates, several with 0 percent,” he said. “We need to understand what that means for the system as a whole.”

Results suggest need for continued oversight, monitors say

The monitors said state officials were cooperative in preparing the report. And members of the independent monitoring team, a court-appointed contractor called Fluency Plus, LLC, also took partial responsibility for the errors themselves. 

“The IMs, too, equally acknowledge their role in failing to more carefully review the NOLA/OPSB charter school sites selected for targeted monitoring in the fall, 2017 and/or fall, 2018 monitoring cycles,” the report says. “As such, the IMs wish to express their sincere regret to all parties and feel confident that the LDOE and IMs suggested remedies with prove to be successful for avoiding such oversights in the future.”

“The IMs believe these errors occurred as the result of inadvertent data oversights rather than any attempt to circumvent the school selection process.”

The monitors will review all datasets moving forward. 

In response to the report, the NOLA Public Schools district’s Communications Director Tania Dall provided a statement attributed to the district.

“NOLA Public Schools is satisfied that the State Department of Education has remedied the errors in its target monitoring selections, and we look forward to working with all parties to successfully complete the requirements of the Consent Judgment.”

The monitors argued that the errors did not result in a favorable outcome for the state. Eight of those ten incorrectly selected schools landed corrective action plans after being monitored because they were found to be out of compliance with federal special education laws. 

The fact that schools that should not have raised concerns under the terms of the consent decree were still found to be out of compliance with the law brings into question the metrics used in the decree, the monitors wrote. And it “further indicates the level of concerns that continue to exist among NOLA/OPSB schools with regard to [federal] compliance, thus suggesting the continued need for LDOE oversight and support under the provisions of the (judgment).”

The monitors recommend the state, OPSB and plaintiffs meet with counsel to discuss moving forward. 

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...