A popular school for gifted students in New Orleans is not offering by-the-book gifted services. But the state and NOLA Public Schools district say that’s just fine. 

That’s because the Louisiana Department of Education says charter schools, like Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, are exempt from a state law requiring gifted education. The only way they can be forced to provide the services is through language written in their charter contracts. But even then, the types of programming they provide could be up to them. That is, unless the NOLA Public Schools district, which authorizes and oversees the city’s schools, includes specific requirements in their charter contracts.

Mark and Latessia McClellan said they’ve learned all of this the hard way as Lake Forest — where their daughter Psalm is a sixth-grader — transitioned to a new model for her gifted curriculum, one that made them question whether she was actually getting the types of services they believed she should. She was no longer taking advanced classes in a gifted-only classroom. And, they said, she was no longer getting instruction from teachers certified in gifted education. 

“My issue is if you’re not a gifted school, then tell me that. If you can’t provide those services then tell me that,” Latessia McClellan said. “Then the ball is left in my court to try to decide if this is the best place for my daughter.” 

Gifted services are only mentioned once in Lake Forest’s charter, found on NOLA Public Schools’ site, and that’s in reference to a gifted pre-kindergarten program the school no longer operates. But a spokeswoman for the school said it offers gifted services to all students. 

In a statement, the NOLA Public Schools district said that schools are bound by the law, if, like Lake Forest, they opt in to offering gifted education. 

“While charter schools are not required by charter law to offer gifted services, once a charter does offer gifted services the charter is then bound by the laws and policies that govern gifted services.”

That would seem to mean offering traditional gifted programming with certified gifted teachers. At the same time, however, the district’s responses to questions from The Lens repeatedly emphasized charters’ “discretion” in gifted staffing and programming.  Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education told The Lens that what Lake Forest calls gifted services wouldn’t fly at a non-charter school.

Lake Forest is one of the city’s only selective admissions schools. Those also include Lusher Charter School and Benjamin Franklin Charter High School, among others. To get in, students must take exams and sometimes complete a project and parents must attend a meeting. If more students apply than spots are available, the schools must hold an admissions lottery. 

Selectivity is a built-in advantage over other schools in the city. It allows schools to enroll only the highest-achieving students — including many who would likely be considered gifted — virtually guaranteeing them high scores on state standardized tests and, as a result, high state ratings. 

The city’s selective admissions schools have a higher-than-average population of gifted and talented students. Students can also be designated talented in certain arts. Statewide, less than five percent of students are considered gifted and talented, according to state data. At Lake Forest, that number is 15 percent, according to state data. At Lusher it’s 32 percent and at Franklin it’s 42 percent. 

Lake Forest is considered an A school by the state and is therefore in little danger of losing its charter. On top of that, gifted students receive higher per-pupil funding from the state, because gifted services are expensive. 

But because Lake Forest’s charter contract with NOLA Public Schools is vague on gifted programming, it doesn’t have to provide those services in any particular way.

After months of frustration and complaints, in December, the McClellans requested their daughter’s service logs, which would detail the dates and times she received advanced instruction. 

A few weeks later, their daughter Psalm casually recounted how she was asked to backdate and fill out her own logs from the first semester of English class, which is typically completed by teachers. What’s more, Psalm told her parents that she was told to sign off on gifted class work that she had never actually been assigned. That shocked her parents and got them digging even deeper. The school denied the allegation. 

“We just started the logs this year. But in [English class] she said something about how she did it wrong and the administration wanted it on paper,” Psalm said in an interview with The Lens. “So we hadn’t done any gifted work, but we started all the way from the first quarter signing things for gifted assignments.”

A charter’s gifted program

After testing gifted as a three-year-old, Psalm entered the Lake Forest’s gifted pre-kindergarten program. Many Lake Forest students secured a spot that way, until the program ended in 2016.

“That was her whole ability to enter the school was because she was gifted,” Latessia said. 

Until fourth grade, the McClellans said, Psalm would leave her general education classroom and receive instruction from a gifted teacher. That is often described as a “pull-out” model. That model mirrored a traditional gifted program, with a gifted teacher, and would meet state standards for traditional schools.

The McClellans say the school has quietly shifted the format of its program and that Psalm’s English and math teachers aren’t certified in gifted education. The school said parents were informed of the switch. 

“Charter school law does not require any teacher in a charter school to be certified,” Cheron Brylski, a Lake Forest spokeswoman, told The Lens.

Generally speaking, gifted students are covered under the state’s special education law. That means they’re eligible to receive special services — often advanced, gifted-only courses taught by teachers with gifted-education certification. But charter schools — which must provide state-approved services to disabled students — are exempt from the part of the law that covers gifted and talented students, according to the state Department of Education. 

The New Orleans school district agrees with that interpretation. 

“Gifted services can be offered in a variety of ways in our charters schools,” district spokeswoman Fatima Mehr wrote in an email attributed to the district. “Depending on the school’s programming, students may receive gifted services in a general education environment.”

“I think that gifted education has been recognized by Louisiana as a form of special education and therefore all students should be able to participate in that if they’ve been deemed eligible to do so.”

Victor Jones, Southern Poverty Law Center

Victor Jones, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, is part of a class-lawsuit against the state and NOLA Public Schools over special education in the city. The suit resulted in a federal consent decree that requires monitoring of special education enrollment and service in New Orleans schools. But unlike state law, federal special education law doesn’t include gifted education. And so neither does the consent decree. 

Still, Jones doesn’t think the state’s interpretation is accurate. 

“Of course I don’t agree with that,” he said in an interview this week. “I think that gifted education has been recognized by Louisiana as a form of special education and therefore all students should be able to participate in that if they’ve been deemed eligible to do so.” 

The McClellans question whether Lake Forest’s program aligns with state laws, whether it has to, and if it’s best practice. 

“This probably has more to do with charter school law I guess, that they can have a gifted program without a gifted teacher,” Mark said during an interview last week. 

Now, her parents say her English and math teachers are supposed to provide extra “gifted” assignments to gifted students in her regular, non-gifted class. Her parents say the school described that as a “push-in” model, also called an inclusion model.

“Lake Forest Charter changed to an inclusion model offering differentiated instructional practices for all students including students with gifted IEPs,” Brylski wrote in an email, referring to students’ individual education programs, which are created for gifted students and students with disabilities. “This model is considered a national best practice. In SY 17-18, parents were notified of this change.”

The school’s current type of arrangement, as described, wouldn’t count toward required gifted service minutes in a traditional school, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn. 

“A push-in model means a gifted teacher goes into the regular education class to provide services using an inclusion model or pulling her students to the rear of the room for small group instruction. A teacher cannot be the regular education teacher and gifted teacher in the same instructional setting,” Dunn wrote in an email. “Two different people are used to provide instruction.”

In traditional schools, things also change if students who aren’t gifted are in the classroom. 

“The inclusion of non-identified students nullifies the service minutes, unless the [local education agency] has a waiver that would allow this,” she wrote. 

In its statement, the district said that central office employees review six special education files at each school every year. Those files may include gifted and talented students. The review checks for required signatures, service logs, progress reports and whether the services prescribed to the student are appropriate for their classification and/or diagnosis. 

“If they don’t have a gifted program, fine, I’m OK with that.”

Mark McClellan

Brylski said the school’s gifted services are in compliance. 

“It was previously been determined by the State Department of Education that Lake Forest Charter School is in compliance with its gifted instruction program. All internal documentation in student gifted IEPs go beyond what is required by state requirements,” Brylski wrote. 

But the McClellans question just exactly what gifted means if the new model is passing muster. 

“If they don’t have a gifted program, fine, I’m OK with that. Then we’ll take our services elsewhere,” Mark said. “I feel they’re saying they have one, we’re signing an IEP, and I’m sure they’re getting funds for gifted services. And we want our daughter to receive whatever services she is supposed to have based on her IEP.”

The contract

Charter schools are designed to be autonomous, and are exempt from a number of laws and policies that apply to traditional schools. 

But if NOLA Public Schools — an all-charter district — wants to require services beyond what the law provides, it can include them in schools’ charter contracts. That’s the only way to ensure that such services are offered at charter schools. 

“OPSB, as the authorizer, has the authority to add a requirement to provide gifted and talented services to the charter contract,” Dunn wrote in an August email to The Lens.

When the Orleans Parish School Board voted in 2018 to raise the minimum wage for food service workers to $15 an hour, that did not apply to charter schools because it was a district policy change. But the district’s work to centralize its enrollment system has been done incrementally, year-by-year by adding it to charter schools’ new contracts. 

Yellow bus service has been a topic of debate in the city. With open enrollment, meaning students can apply to any school regardless of where they live in the city, the district wanted schools to provide transportation to ensure students can get across town. But when one charter school provided public transit tokens instead of yellow bus service the district threatened to revoke its charter

The only language about gifted services in the school’s charter is in a section that deals with what grades the school can enroll. It says Lake Forest “is authorized to serve grades PreK Gifted” — the program it no longer offers — through the eighth grade. The charter offers no language about what gifted services or staffing are required or even whether those services were required beyond the pre-K program. A spokeswoman said the school offers gifted to all grades.

“Any staffing or programming regarding Gifted or Talented is left to the discretion of the charter school or its governing non-profit board.”

NOLA Public Schools

Several selective admission schools — most of which performed well enough to win 10-year charter contract renewals, rather than the usual five that comes with lower state ratings — are up for renewal in the fall, including Lake Forest. That opens up the possibility of new requirements, like traditional gifted services. 

When asked, the district did not specifically answer a question about whether it would consider adding gifted services to charter contracts and said gifted programming was a decision left to the schools.

“For example and specifically, charter schools do not have to comply with Louisiana law or regulations or BESE rules regarding students who are Gifted and Talented, unless the charter school chooses to do so,” Mehr wrote. “Therefore, any staffing or programming regarding Gifted or Talented is left to the discretion of the charter school or its governing non-profit board.”

When it comes to which schools currently offer gifted services, the district said parents can find that on the EnrollNOLA website. A district statement Mehr provided said of the city’s 85 programs, 66 reported providing gifted and talented. 

The service logs

According to Psalm’s individual education program, she should receive 150 minutes of gifted instruction, split between English and math, each week. An IEP acts as a contract between a school and student’s parents. IEPs are most often used to outline special education services. 

“We want our daughter to receive whatever services she is supposed to have based on her IEP and evaluations to even get into the school at such a young age, at three years old,” he said. 

But recently, Mark McClellan said, their daughter “intimated to us that she hadn’t received gifted services, or any gifted work assignments or projects for ELA since this school year started.”

So Mark and Latessia asked to see Psalm’s service logs, a record they learned was available after consulting with Families Helping Families, a local non-profit. 

“After we made our request is when the teacher came in and had her and the other students back-date these logs,” he said.  “Which I’m sure you may realize is very problematic for me because it has the indication that ‘hey, we didn’t do the servicing and now we’re going to go back and have them to sign this to make it appear as we did’.” 

Asked if any student were asked to backdate services logs, the school’s spokeswoman Cheron Brylski responded with a single word: “NO.”

Jones said while he didn’t know if this actually occurred at the school, if it did, it would be a very bad practice he said.

“I would say the mere fact that the child was approached to sign a semester suggested (the minutes) weren’t timely documented,” he said. “I’m not saying that that happened but it does suggest it and that’s just an inappropriate route to take.”

If it happened, he said, “That opens the school up to a host of issues with regard to compliance with the data.”

The McClellans are hoping for answers and say they hope to bring clarity to the school’s services and charter requirements by speaking out. 

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...