Sophie B. Wright School welcomes back teachers to the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers were allowed back into buildings while students learned remotely amid the pandemic.

Sophie B. Wright Charter School violated state and federal special education law by failing to keep certain documentation and student files up to date, the NOLA Public Schools district charged in a late-March warning letter to the school’s administration.

A two-page “level II” warning letter from the district’s Chief Schools Accountability Officer Kevin George details several shortcomings — from outdated individualized education plans to files that lacked compensatory service letters.

Individualized education plans, or IEPs, are required for all students enrolled in special education programs. They are developed by schools, working with parents, to meet each student’s needs. Under federal law, they must be updated in regular increments and fully reviewed every three years. They outline the amount and type of help each student receives. If a student misses those services and is owed them, the school must draft a compensatory service letter alerting the family to that deficit and giving them an opportunity to receive the services owed to the student. 

But the warning is a result of a misunderstanding, Wright’s CEO Sharon Clark said in a phone call Thursday. Clark said the school has the proper documentation but that it wasn’t in the proper place, a status Clark said she “self-reported” to the district after it reported its initial findings and before a follow-up visit in March.

“I self-reported I knew the stuff wasn’t in the folders but it was upstairs. … We were still organizing everything,” after the departure of the school’s special education director, Clark said. 

The Uptown charter high school “was found to be non-compliant with its legal obligations regarding supporting students with disabilities as identified in the Charter Operating Agreement,” George wrote in the warning letter.

George said officials found issues in their initial annual site visit to the school earlier this year and again on the March 17 follow-up.

The letter says that during the initial visit, conducted virtually during the fall semester, the compensatory letters weren’t present in student folders. They were later found in a follow-up visit. 

“On March 17, 2021, all student files included compensatory services letters which were dated September 2020,” George wrote. “Based on the notices provided, all parents selected option 2 which stated that parents declined compensatory services.”

Asked about the note, Clark said students only missed one week of services — from the initial week in March 2020 when schools first shuttered and prepared to reopen virtually. Because the amount of time was so small, Clark said parents elected to forego the makeup services. She also said this was a common reaction for a small amount of make up time particularly for high school students.

“We were following the ‘Strong Start’ as we were supposed to,” Clark said, noting the Louisiana Department of Education’s guidelines for reopening amid the pandemic. 

That explanation was the same one Rooted School CEO Jonathan Johnson gave this week when asked about an academic warning his school received. 

The Sophie Wright warning also notes that service logs — which record the type of help special education students receive, time and objectives — that previously read “study hall” were changed to read “English IV” as the service provided. While a change such as that may be suspect at first glance, Clark said that change was made at the request of the district.

“We usually just put ‘resource education’ but they wanted a specific title,” Clark said. “Yes, resources were rendered to the students (in that time period).”

At the March 17 review George wrote that all four student files reviewed “did not include updated Individual Education Plans.”

Clark said the paperwork was in the building but not in the proper place. 

“All of the students’ IEPs are up to date,” she said.

In closing, George provided the school with a number of steps to take.

“Sophie B Wright did not provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students, including not providing appropriate services under an IEP, both are violations of federal and state law,” he wrote.

The school must turn in a number of documents to the district, including a list of students with expired IEP, proof of communication with parents and more. The last deadline includes turning in updated IEPs by April 30, 2021.

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...