Bricolage Academy on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district last week issued a warning letter to Bricolage Academy over the school’s special education services, demanding that Bricolage personnel complete a review of all school special education files and warning that failure to comply could result in “escalated consequences.” 

According to the letter, issued on Oct. 12, the district has been working with the school on special education since late last year, issuing a “level 1” non-compliance notice last fall and extending it in January. The new letter elevates it to a “level 2,” the most serious warning level. Schools that fail to comply with district demands in a level 2 notice can face penalties including further intervention, onsite monitoring or even charter revocation.

In the Oct. 12 letter, Interim Chief Schools Accountability Officer Litouri Smith said the Esplanade Avenue charter school must finish reviewing all special education files to ensure they are in compliance with state and federal special education laws by early January 2022. 

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, schools are required to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities in order to provide them the level of education they are expected to achieve. Under the law, school personnel, working with parents, must develop a plan, called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that details what services they need. (Common special education services include things like counseling, speech therapy and occupational therapy.)

Schools are required to ensure that educators are following student IEPs, maintain up-to-date records on services provided to students and adjust the plans as needed. Roughly 33 percent of Bricolage’s 700 students require IEPs. 

This is not the first time special education has been an issue at the school. In 2019, parents complained that new aftercare policies effectively excluded special education students from utilizing the service. Those complaints prompted the then-CEO Josh Densen to complete an audit of its programs, including allowing district officials to review their practices. 

The initial level 1 warning, issued in November 2020, stemmed from a formal complaint the district received about the school’s special education compliance, Smith wrote. That warning followed the revelation that school officials had hired a consultant to evaluate special education services. Though the findings — some serious — were shared with top administrators and the board president, they were not publicly shared with the full board or parents.

That report 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. The consultant also found “significant gaps in special education infrastructure” at the school.

The district’s November 2020 warning appears to have been an attempt to ensure special education services were on track at the school, requiring an assessment of any policy or procedure changes school leaders implemented.

“Two subsequent file reviews identified areas of strengths and deficiencies in the special education practices at Bricolage,” Smith wrote.

Bricolage took several steps to remedy the issues identified in the November warning, according to Smith’s newest letter, including meeting periodically with district staff and developing and submitting new special education policies. But it has yet to complete a review of all student special education files to ensure those policies are being carried out properly. 

“The Notice of Non-Compliance, Level 1 also indicated that NOLA PS would formally assess the  implementation of the developed policies and procedures to determine if the notice would be closed,” Smith wrote last week. “Bricolage Academy has not completed a full file review to ensure compliance across all students, thus implementation cannot be evaluated.”

Resolving the warning

In January, the district extended its warning from two months earlier. Last week’s elevation to level 2 indicates a more severe level of noncompliance. The district publishes level 2 warnings on its website but does not post level 1 complaints.

“To resolve this Notice of Non-Compliance, Level 2 and return to good standing as it relates to this matter, Bricolage shall continue working with the third party to complete the full file review and address any remaining concerns or deficiencies found during the review by January 12, 2022,” Smith wrote. “Failure to respond to these remedies may result in escalated consequences.”

Bricolage’s Interim CEO Antigua Wilbern, who was hired in the spring, announced the elevated warning issued Oct. 12 in an email to parents on Oct. 15. 

“After being appointed Interim CEO in May 2021, I contracted with the Special Education Leadership Fellowship (SELF), experts in high-quality special education programming design, to help our Student Support Team address growth areas identified in the Notice of Non-Compliance, Level 1,” Wilbern wrote to families.

Since hiring SELF, Wilbern wrote, the school has addressed several of the issues outlined in the initial warning. She said she’s hired additional special education teachers, paraprofessionals and interventionists, who work with students on skills they’re struggling with. She’s put a Special Education Coordinator, Response to Intervention Coordinator, and Student Assistance Team Coordinator into place and “clarified their roles and responsibilities.”

She also said the school has continued to meet with the district, in addition to updating special education policies and procedures. The district also acknowledged these steps in its letter. The file review is the one outstanding issue, and it must be done by January 12. 

“I am confident in our ability to meet this deadline,” Wilbern wrote. “To date, 201 of the 227 files of students with exceptionalities have been reviewed. After the remaining 26 files of students with exceptionalities are reviewed, the files of students who are gifted and/or talented and the files of students with Section 504 plans will be reviewed.”

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...