The Sunshine Parents group protesting the school's special education practices. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

After a parent-led press conference critical of Bricolage Academy’s special education services last week, the school has provided documents showing its been in compliance with NOLA Public Schools district reviews for the last two school years. 

The standard district reviews are conducted annually on all district schools and consist of a NOLA Public Schools employee reviewing student files at the school. For special education, central office staff review the files of six students with special education needs. Since they are performed system-wide, the reviews are not comprehensive. Rather, they are designed to ensure that schools’ special education paperwork is in order and in compliance with district policies and state and federal law. 

In its 2018 and 2019 reviews, the district found Bricolage to be in compliance in all areas of special education it examines. 

Bricolage released the reviews to The Lens — in response to a public records request — following public criticism of the school’s special education services from a group of parents. The newly formed group, who call themselves the “Sunshine Parents,” said at a press conference last week that they’ve struggled to get special education services over the years at Bricolage. Roby Chavez is one of them. He brought concerns of how the administration was treating his son — who autism and ADHD — to the charter school’s board in March. 

Chavez has experience in school policy, having worked as communications director for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools until last year. Chavez told WDSU he believes that complaining in public and to the media cost him the job.   

The Lens showed him the district’s reports on the school. He said the reviews were too limited to show what’s really happening at Bricolage.

“This data does not reflect what is happening at the classroom level. Our students deserve a deeper look into the systematic issues that limit special needs students’ ability to fully access an education at Bricolage,” Chavez wrote in an email. “We are concerned about what happens to our kids on a day-to-day basis, not just what boxes are checked.”

In response to Chavez’s complaint last year, the board directed former Bricolage CEO Josh Densen to investigate and Densen in turn also asked the district for additional evaluation. Densen left the school in November. He’s been replaced by Interim CEO Carolyn Louden. Last week, the school’s governing board announced that it had completed a search and had selected Troave Profice to take over as permanent CEO beginning in March. Profice worked for the Louisiana Department of Education for 6 years evaluating charter schools and moved on to work at New Orleans College Prep.

The Sunshine Parents are demanding Bricolage release more information that the school and the district have uncovered about its special education services. The parents’ group asked for the results of the district evaluation, which the group referred to as an “audit.” The district has told The Lens that no formal, in-depth audit of Bricolage’s special education services exists. And the school has yet to publicly release the results of its internal investigation. 

The group also wants the school to ensure discipline practices are transparent, allow parents to visit their child’s classrooms and follow federal special education law. 

In response to last week’s protest, Louden said she would meet with parents, something they asked for, and that the school had hired a consultant to analyze the program. 

“I’m relying on the in-depth study our consultant will provide to get the detailed facts in response to the allegations made by the group,” she said in an email last week. “I am hopeful that we can make much progress soon in this regard and get the facts out on the table.”

District reviews

According to state data, last school year Bricolage enrolled 575 students, 16 percent of whom received special education services. At that rate, approximately 92 students would have been receiving services. The reviews examine six student files annually. 

In 2018, the Esplanade Avenue school was found to be in compliance in each of the six areas of special education monitored by the district. During that November review, the district examined six student files. The district found all of those files were in compliance regarding up-to-date individual education programs, often called IEPs, tracking services and had all required signatures. In the three other areas, the district found five out of six files to be in compliance. 

This school year, Bricolage added sixth grade and now has 697 students, according to state data.

The November 2019 review showed the six student files chosen for review were in compliance in each of the six areas. 

But Chavez thinks the reviews are don’t go far enough.

“The list of compliance metrics for Bricolage and other schools represents a baseline threshold to ensure minimum compliance with federal law; it sheds no light on the concerns expressed by the Sunshine Parents related to identification of needs, adequate levels of staffing,

staff qualifications and training needs, classroom size, quality of curriculum or concerns regarding the unwarranted overuse of discipline practices such as restraint, seclusion or suspension on special needs students,” he wrote in an email. 

“We would ask that charter school authorizers hold our schools to higher standards than bare compliance minimums, especially as regards to our students most at risk.”

Asked to respond to Chavez’s criticisms of the district reviews, Louden wrote in an email that she had no further comment. 

New Orleans schools are occasionally subjected to heightened special education scrutiny. 

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. 

As part of the consent decree, certain schools are placed under what is called “targeted monitoring” each year, a state-led process that includes longer file reviews, repeat school visits and staff interviews. Bricolage has never been on the targeted monitoring list, a state Department of Education spokeswoman told The Lens. As part of its review into the John F. Kennedy High School 2019 graduation scandal, the state also looked into its special education services, finding shortcomings there.

The NOLA Public Schools district has also taken action against some schools in response to complaints about special education. When a parent at Mary D. Coghill Charter School complained last year that her daughter wasn’t being served properly, the district went in and found eight additional students with similar problems.

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 original lawsuit that led to the consent decree.

Last March, after he approached the board with those concerns, the board asked former CEO Josh Densen to evaluate services at Bricolage and report back. In November, the school refused to release its internal investigation to The Lens, citing attorney client privilege. 

Asked again this month, Louden asked for more information about our inquiry but ultimately did not respond.

When we asked the district about the audit mentioned by parents, a district spokeswoman said there was no formal audit but that the district had been contacted by Bricolage for support. 

We then asked the district about what they found in the informal review and what suggestions they made to the school regarding special education services. Senior Communications Manager Fatima Mehr provided the following response via email, attributed to NOLA Public Schools.

“We served as a thought partner in continuous improvement of their systems of support. We also highlighted additional resources available to assist Bricolage in being responsive to their system-wide needs. Examples of these resources include how to access Special Education Reporting (SER) support through the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) and an overview of the LDE’s special education library.”

Asked for more specifics, the district said, “We don’t have any additional information to share regarding this inquiry.”

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...