NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The NOLA Public Schools district will require Friends of King, the charter group that runs Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School, to have a third party monitor its special education services over the next six months due to a range of special education violations the district says it has identified at the school. 

The order comes as the district itself is attempting to exit federally ordered special education monitoring that the Louisiana Department of Education and the district have been under for nearly seven years. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents 10 families who initially sued the agencies, argues they aren’t yet ready to be free of federal oversight. 

The Lower 9th Ward school enrolls just under 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and roughly 10 percent of its students have disabilities, according to state data. The school’s latest state rating, in 2019, prior to the pandemic disrupting standardized testing, was a ‘D.’

In a two-page warning letter dated Nov. 16, the district alleges Dr. King Charter School has failed to provide special education services and other requirements outlined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act that guarantees students with disabilities an appropriate education. 

Chief Schools Accountability Officer Litouri Smith alleges at least three violations in the letter: that special students did not receive the services they should have, that the school did not consider special external education evaluations that parents commissioned for their children and that the school did not “take jurisdiction” of a special education transfers and begin providing services within the required time period. The letter outlines six steps the school must take by next month. 

It is unclear how many students did not receive federally protected services. The district’s warning letter references a “confidential appendix” with more detail, which The Lens has requested. However, if the appendix contains personal information, which appears likely, it may not be subject to full disclosure under the state Public Records Act. 

Smith announced the warning at the Orleans Parish School Board’s Tuesday committee meeting, where he also noted Dr. King Charter, whose charter is expiring, was not included in a list of schools being recommended for renewal. In that presentation, Smith said six other charter schools that are up for contract renewal, like King, would receive new contracts. 

“You may notice that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. school is not present on this list,” Smith said Tuesday. 

In the last state ratings, released after the 2018-19 school year, King earned a D letter grade from the state. That can make the school eligible for a 3-year contract but it must show growth in certain grade levels. (State ratings were not released in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic.)

“We are working with the school to gather additional information as part of their renewal review and will bring a recommendation to the December board meeting,” Smith said. 

The warning letter, which was issued the same day as the meeting, will require the school to provide monthly compliance reports from a third party monitor — that will be paid for by the charter group  — in what appears to be a first for the district. That arrangement will last for at least six months, running through June 2022.

Among the additional requirements the district has laid out for the school, it must review external special education reviews that have been completed and write any necessary individual education plans, often called IEPs. IEPs are a federally protected contract between a school and family that spell out specific services a child requires and is entitled to. 

Smith also wrote that the school must evaluate whether all of its students have received required special education services — and if not, it must provide compensatory, or makeup services, by Dec. 10. That includes a subset of students listed in a “confidential appendix” Smith refers to in his letter. (It is unclear how many students’ needs are detailed in said appendix.)

The district is also requiring the school to “take jurisdiction and open services of students as indicated in the confidential appendix in SER.” That appears to suggest the school was not pulling external recommendations for newly enrolled students or newly evaluated students that are available in the state’s special education reporting system. 

Additionally, the district is requiring the school to conduct “a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)” for students listed in the warning to ensure they are receiving appropriate services.

The warning also hints at additional areas of non-compliance but does not detail them. Asked about the additional issues, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo would not offer specifics.

“At NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS), we work with our schools to ensure they are supported to provide the highest quality education to their students,” Alfonzo wrote. “Bullet 6 refers to our work with Martin Luther King Charter School to help them improve how they document the delivery of their special education services.”

Friends of King’s board president and attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

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...