Bricolage Academy occupies John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

A consultant’s report on a New Orleans school — previously shown only to school administrators but not publicly released — found what appear to be serious shortcomings with its special education offerings, documents obtained by The Lens show. 

The report on Bricolage Academy, prepared in the spring by consultant Emily Waterfield, identified missing documentation on special education services provided to students, inadequate training and heavy caseloads for staff and an “overrepresentation” of students with disabilities receiving out-of-school suspension — including one who was suspended for 15 days last school year.

“This program review indicates that over time, there has been a lack of policy, training and clarity around Special Education, resulting in significant gaps in Special Education infrastructure,” Waterfield wrote.

But neither the school’s nonprofit governing board nor parents ever saw those findings in full. Only the school’s principal, interim CEO, new CEO and board chairwoman did. During its April meeting, the board was shown a much rosier picture of how the school educates its students with disabilities. That presentation specifically outlined the school’s strengths and included a series of recommendations but did not detail the problems the consultant found at the school.

The school insists that the crisp 23-slide presentation shown to the board at its public meeting in April is the final report.

Responding to The Lens’ questions, Bricolage CEO Troave’ Profice acknowledged the schools’ special education issues but denied trying to conceal any information from parents.

“I understand we may have differing opinions here,” she wrote to The Lens last week. “But I actually believe Mrs. Waterfield shared the full impressions via the board presentation.”

Critical findings kept private

The earlier, more critical summary report was only made public because of two Bricolage parents whose children are enrolled as special education students at the school. The parents, Roby Chavez and Chris Roe, spent months seeking the full analysis of the Mid-City elementary school’s special education program, only obtaining it after hiring an attorney. 

Chavez, whose children have autism, has been publicly critical of Bricolage’s special education services since he challenged a policy change he said excluded his son from the school’s aftercare program. In March 2019, he brought his concerns to the school’s board at one of its monthly board meetings. The board chair vowed to investigate and the school signed a contract with Waterfield in November. 

Over several months, Chavez, with the help of attorney Lori Mince, has requested and received texts and emails between charter board members, school officials and Waterfield — the consultant hired for the investigation — as well as various other documents that go into far greater detail about the school’s shortcomings and school officials’ roles in shaping the final report.

Text messages show Waterfield’s initial observations were delivered to administrators’ homes in March, shortly after Bricolage, and the rest of the schools in Louisiana, were shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the morning of March 24, nine days after Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools statewide, interim Bricolage CEO Carolyn Louden sent a text message to Waterfield and Bricolage Principal Antiqua Wilbern. She asked if Waterfield could drop off multiple copies of her draft report on Wilbern’s porch that day in advance of a meeting to discuss it. 

“We would ask Troave and Yvette to come pick up their copy from you then do a Zoom meeting tomorrow. No running around by you!” Louden wrote, naming the new CEO and board chairwoman. “I’ll have to do without a copy since I’m in GA.”

It’s unclear why Louden couldn’t have received a copy electronically. 

Just after 9 p.m., Waterfield texted, “Hey, Sorry- it’s late. Can I drop the reports in your mailbox or porch?”

The next day it appears the four discussed Waterfield’s findings, outlined briefly in what appear to be meeting notes. The foundational discovery pointed to a “lack of infrastructure since systems were not created as the school grew.”

“It’s very concerning that there are text messages that point to what appears to be this elaborate plan to deliver the report in the dark of night to people’s porches,” Chavez, the parent, told The Lens. “I’ll leave it up to parents to decide if this was a deliberate attempt to avoid a paper trail.”

Chavez later obtained the report that the administrators were discussing at that meeting. On Sept. 10, the school provided a 17-page “Special Education Program Review.” Even as they provided it, Bricolage’s lawyers insisted it was not a public record and it was provided only out of good will. 

“As mentioned, the documents provided to the family were secured from a third party and we do not believe they are a public record. However, they were provided as a matter of good faith,” Profice said. “To insinuate that Bricolage Academy would attempt to keep documents from parents is a blatant disregard of our track record.”

But that’s now how Mince sees it.

“The real issue seems to be they were exchanging physical drafts of a report and now no one seems to have it,” she said in late August, before the 17-page report was provided. “To the extent that they don’t have these records, that’s a violation of the Act.”

Chavez noted that Waterfield’s invoices show separate charges for writing up her findings in a report, in February, and, two months later, preparing a presentation for the board. A text message exchange between Louden and Waterfield also mentions “dual reporting.” 

“I think the text messages show that the plan all along was to come up with dual reporting which the consultants’ invoice confirms,” Chavez said. “One seems to be this watered down report that was presented to the public and the other seems to be this key findings report.”

Too many suspensions, missing records, staff inadequately trained

Waterfield’s longer report and the meeting notes highlighted two areas — a lack of behavior plans for students and failing to refer suspended students to a support program — in which the school was “out of compliance.” Students, both general education and those with disabilities, who were suspended weren’t given proper Response to Intervention. RTI is a technique used to assess which skills students are struggling with and whether they need additional assistance.

She said the school lacked a “systematic approach” to behavior plans.

“Students with multiple suspensions are not being referred for appropriate support and students with disabilities exhibiting behavior concerns should have [behavior intervention plans] developed and BIP reviews held whenever a suspension is issued,” she wrote.

Profice said the school had made hires in special education over the summer, including a new department head, and that staff were working “throughout the summer to include the behavior plans that already existed were appropriately placed into the student files.”

Waterfield also said students with disabilities were overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions. She reported just under 20 percent of Bricolage students have a disability. Meanwhile, of the 29 students suspended last year, nine of them, or nearly one-third, had a disability.

She found non-compliance in student files ranging from service minutes kept incorrectly to students who were owed services and that the school was missing out on special education funding. 

“Minutes vary widely, so not setting tiers correctly,” meeting notes state. “All are strong teachers but no coordination.” 

Tiers can help teachers decide how much extra assistance to provide to students and evaluate when their inventions work. Profice said the school is now using a software to help ensure they have “a more streamlined and consistent approach to tiered intervention on both the academic and behavior side.”

Waterfield also found students with disabilities did not have behavior plans. Waterfield found the school had a “lack of infrastructure” in its special education programming, because it wasn’t developed as the school grew in size.

No special education students’ individualized education plans — plans that include required services for special education students — called for health services. “Some small number should,” the March meeting notes say.

That finding was both surprising and unsurprising to Abby Doyle, whose 11-year-old son attends Bricolage. 

The now sixth-grader is hard of hearing and has an IEP. He also has asthma and Doyle assumed he’d have a health plan in his IEP, but she’s also had issues with the school before.

“He’s supposed to have a health plan. He has severe asthma and is supposed to have a health plan as part of his IEP,” Doyle said in an interview last month. “Then when I saw in the report it said no students had a health plan — that obviously set off some alarm bells for me.”

She said it’s been an issue every school year. Her son’s asthma can be bad at times and Doyle said they used to send him to the nurse’s office on his own if he was having an asthma attack. 

“He would be sent alone to the nurses office while having an asthma attack. He’d be walking down stairs, where I felt like that was not a safe way to manage a young child having an asthma attack,” she said.

Hearing her concerns the school then started sending another student with her son to the nurse’s office. But that worried Doyle too.

“I felt like a seven-year-old shouldn’t be in charge of another child’s potentially fatal illness,” she said. “I don’t think the seven-year-olds were well trained in how to respond to a respiratory crisis.”

Doyle reviewed the more detailed documents after Chavez received them. 

“The biggest issue just right now is we were under the impression a health plan was in place, and according to this report it wasn’t,” she said. “Since we’re all doing distance learning right now it’s not a pressing issue — I guess if they start bringing kids back in the classroom.”

Older students will return to Bricolage’s campus in the coming weeks. Doyle is also concerned for other parents. 

“According to this report, there are other parents at the school whose kids don’t have health plans when they need them,” she said. 

In a September email to The Lens, Profice said the findings on health plans no longer applied.

“We experienced a transition in our on-site health provider at the end of the 2019 – 2020 school year, but worked with the outgoing nurse to ensure all plans were updated and filed accordingly,” she wrote in an email to The Lens. “We are in the process of on-boarding our new School Nurse and she will work directly with our Director of Student Support Services and each qualifying student’s IEP team to ensure that health plans are in place.”

One of Waterfield’s draft reports suggests an audiologist should be hired to serve one student. 

“The school is making changes,” Profice wrote in response to questions from The Lens. 

“As noted in the report presented by Equity Schools, the challenges we’re facing with our Special Education program did not occur overnight,” Profice wrote. “There is no one quick fix that can undo some of the errors, but we are working feverishly to build strong, solid systems that improve the structure of our programming.”

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...