The Louisiana Department of Education has issued corrective action plans to three New Orleans charter schools after finding problems with their special education services during the 2018-19 school year. As a result of those findings, the NOLA Public Schools district last week issued warning letters to those schools: Lusher Charter School, Audubon Charter School and Walter L. Cohen College Prep

The schools each received a level two warning — the most serious type of warning the district issues — from NOLA Public Schools’ Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson. 

“The school is considered not in compliance with its contractual obligations regarding supporting students with disabilities,” Peterson wrote in a letter to each school’s CEO.

The corrective action plans for all three were issued at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. It’s not clear why the district waited until last week to send the letters. NOLA Public Schools officials did not respond to a request for comment on this story. 

Last summer, eight schools were placed on corrective action plans by the state and the district sent the same notices in August. Two of those eight schools, Encore Academy and James M. Singleton failed to complete their plans and have been placed on intensive corrective action plans for this school year too. District staff members reviewed those warnings at October’s Orleans Parish School Board committee meetings but did not address Audubon, Cohen or Lusher.

The warning letters coincide with the planned release of state ratings for schools. Those are set to come out this week. 

Corrective action plans, often called CAPs, stem from state monitoring required by a four-year-old federal consent decree. The consent decree was negotiated to settle a 2010 lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of ten families that charged the city’s charter schools were admitting too few students with special needs and failing to provide proper services to the ones they did enroll. 

The district warning letters come weeks after a report detailed errors by state Department of Education officials charged with monitoring New Orleans schools as part of the consent decree. According to the report, the state monitored the wrong schools for two years, based on criteria spelled out in the consent decree. Audubon and Lusher were among the schools that were incorrectly monitored. 

Lusher should have been monitored for their special education services in 2017, according to the report, but it wasn’t. Then in 2018, it was selected for monitoring, though it shouldn’t have been on the list that year.

A spokeswoman for Lusher and Audubon, Cheron Brylski, said the schools received the state plans at the end of last school year. Lusher was flagged for “related services,” one of the four areas the state monitors for compliance, meaning the actual special education services the school provides. Related services refers to the actual special education services, such as physical therapy or speech therapy, that schools provide once they enroll students. 

The state also evaluates 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. 

Audubon’s warning centered around enrollment, according to the district’s warning letter.

“Though both schools were not on the original list of schools outlined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as requiring such monitoring, both schools welcomed the reports because ultimately these are meant to review operations and offer suggestions that improve service provision,” Brylski wrote in an emailed statement. “These reports, while dealing with everything as specific as report labeling and rules for service providers, as well as child-specific consultations, have been received and addressed by both schools.”

Joel Castro, the CEO of New Orleans College Prep, the charter group that runs Cohen, said the high school was “initially flagged due to the number of evaluations for special education services conducted during the 2017-18 school year.”

The school was placed on the plan over concerns about its procedures for identifying and evaluating students who might qualify for special education services, called “child find” in the consent decree. 

During the review, monitors were concerned “about whether we had appropriately identified all students who could potentially qualify for special education services in the building,” Castro wrote in an email Monday. 

“We are working with the state monitors to meet all CAP requirements,” he said. “We are also working with Johns Hopkins as a part of our redesign to implement an early warning system.”

The district’s warning letters do not go into detail regarding the state’s findings. 

Monitoring mistakes

In September, state officials confirmed the wrong schools had been monitored in some of the four areas over the last two school years. A report made public in October revealed more problems with monitoring. Independent monitors overseeing the state’s work 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. 

The state maintained that even though mistakes were made, by extending monitoring to this school year, more schools overall will have undergone state scrutiny. That’s a benefit to the system, they’ve argued. 

But lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the plaintiff class of current and future special education students in New Orleans, have argued monitoring extra schools now can’t make up for monitoring missed in past years. 

Over the last several years the state and district, both plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were found to have achieved “substantial compliance” with the consent decree. They are now nearing a point at which federal Judge Jay Zainey — who is presiding over the case — could lift the decree, ending court and monitor supervision. 

Zainey has not weighed in publicly on the October report’s findings. 

The state plans to continue monitoring schools through the 2019-2020 school year. 

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.