Parents of several Bricolage Academy students with special education needs gathered in front of the Esplanade Avenue school Wednesday, to voice their concerns about special education services and call for the school to release the results of a NOLA Public Schools district audit. 

“We are the Sunshine Parents at Bricolage,” parent Roby Chavez said at a press conference shortly after delivering a letter signed by almost 40 parents to the school’s administration. 

As Chavez spoke, outlining parents’ hopes for better special education services, greater teacher training, and a voice in the selection of the school’s next CEO, other parents lined the fence holding signs like “There’s no such thing as somebody else’s children” and “Education is a right for ALL kids.”

Last spring, Chavez publicly approached the Bricolage charter school board after he said the school failed to provide proper services to his son, including making provisions for him to participate in aftercare. Civil rights lawyers say federal special education protections extend outside the classroom to things like field trips and aftercare. 

In response to Chavez’s concerns, the board asked then-Bricolage CEO Josh Densen to open an investigation. Earlier this school year, Densen also announced that the school invited the district to audit its special education program and recommend improvements. Densen refused a November request from The Lens for the internal investigation.

Asked whether an audit had been performed or what stage it was in, district spokeswoman Fatima Mehr emailed a statement attributed to NOLA Public Schools. “There is no formal audit report to share. NOLA Public Schools received a support request from Bricolage in August. NOLA-PS staff then met with Bricolage staff to review various aspects of the school’s special education programming and provided feedback.”

“The school still refuses to release an audit by NOLA Public Schools on its special education program or present any meaningful action steps to address these concerns,” Chavez said. “Let’s be clear, accountability is one of the main tenets of charter schools. When we demand accountability and transparency it is not a personal attack on any of the teachers.”

“We simply want to make it better and demand that the administrator provide teachers with proper training and resources,” he said. 

Bricolage’s interim CEO Carolyn Louden shared a prepared statement. In it, she said the school has hired additional staff this year to account for a growing special education population and has hired a consultant to do an in-depth analysis of the school’s special education program.

Chavez said the parent group is working with Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a group that advocates on behalf of parents of local students. The group’s program director Taylor Castillo describes them as a local issues organizing effort. 

The parents delivered their letter Wednesday with members of Our Voice Nuestra Voz. It asks Bricolage to release findings from the district’s audit, allow parents to visit classrooms (something parents say was recently changed), and “enact a disciplinary process that is transparent and responsive to each child’s exceptionality and need.”

“We are hoping you will join us to share resources and solutions, and partner with us to provide a positive school experience for all; especially our special needs children.”

Castillo was on site with parents. 

“We’re working with parents at Bricolage right now around special education knowing this isn’t just an issue at Bricolage but in the city as a whole,” Castillo said in an interview Tuesday. 

New Orleans schools have been under a federal consent decree over special education services since 2015. The settlement stemmed from a 2010 lawsuit filed by 10 families that claimed in the city’s newly decentralized system, both direct-run and charter schools failed to properly enroll and provide services to students with disabilities. 

In a joint investigation with WDSU-TV last month, The Lens reported that parents like Chavez are experiencing problems similar to the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

“Since last March, our special education group here has been sounding the alarm that there is a special education crisis here at Bricolage,” Chavez said.

Parents say they must fight for services

On Wednesday, other Bricolage parents described experiences similar to Chavez’s to secure services for their children. Several parents spoke using a microphone, as a handful of school staff watched from inside the three-story building. 

Julie Skjolaas’s nine-year-old son started in kindergarten at Bricolage.

“Today our son, who has spent the last four and a half years at Bricolage, reads at a kindergarten level despite being in the third grade,” she said. “Five months ago he was diagnosed with profound dyslexia. But our story does not start there.”

Early on, when their son was reading behind grade level, the Skjolaas family was concerned. 

“As parents we became alarmed, we voiced our concerns. Bricolage was not alarmed at all,” she said. “The school dismissed our concerns with comments like, ‘He’s a boy,’ ‘He’s young for his class,’ and ‘Some kids just take a little longer.’ After two years those excuses ran out and we requested testing.”

She said it took over six months for the school to test her son, which showed he qualified for an individual education program, commonly called an IEP. An IEP is federally protected contract between a school and child’s parents. It outlines the special education services the student should receive. Skjolaas said it then took the school six more months to complete his IEP. 

“Bricolage’s excuse that the process took over another year to complete: ‘Your son slipped through the cracks’,” she recalled over the loudspeaker Wednesday. “After meeting with other parents, ‘slipping through the cracks’ seems to be the standard operating procedure within the leadership of Bricolage’s special education department.”

When Bricolage finally began providing a dyslexia-specific reading program, Skjolaas said the school let her son attend only half the recommended amount of minutes each week. 

“This week our son started at a private school so he can learn to do something which is fundamental to functioning in society: reading,” she said. “We are lucky enough to have the ability to refinance our home to pay for this private school tuition.”

Parent Abby Doyle said her son is hard of hearing and they’ve had similar problems getting the school to be responsive to his needs. After he fell behind in school, Doyle said she and her husband paid for a private evaluation which recommended a rather simple solution. 

“In the classroom environment he wasn’t able to hear what was happening … and wasn’t able to follow the teacher,” she said. “Because of that they recommended certain assistive technology that would help him engage in the classroom.”

She said every school year has brought a new struggle to ensure the device, which is included in his IEP, is working properly so her son can hear his teacher. 

“This year, he didn’t receive it until after the entire first quarter was completed,” she said. “So he had an entire quarter without the equipment that he needs to engage in the classroom, to hear his teachers and to participate fully.”

She said she thinks the special education challenges are not limited to students. 

“I feel like the teachers at the school are also struggling because of the lack of education on low-incidence disabilities like my child,” she said. 

She, Chavez and other parents are asking the school to work with them to improve special education at the school. 

“It is time for Bricolage to stop ignoring parents who are demanding greater accountability and transparency. It is time to show leadership,” Chavez said in closing. “So today we are asking the school to meet with us in the next 14 days.”

In an email after this morning’s press conference, Louden wrote: “This morning, I sent out the invitation for each of our current special education parents to meet with me as mentioned in my statement from last night. I have opened up times on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday for this purpose.”

Update: This story was updated with additional information from NOLA Public Schools.

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...