In New Orleans, the case of special education

Classroom at ReNew Accelerated High School in New Orleans. Photo: Julia Shu

By Julia Shu

For Reporting the Nation, NYU, Oct. 2014

Ireall Lewis, 15, had a streak of green in her reddish black hair. “I think it’s Play-doh,” she laughed, slightly embarrassed. Lewis is attending a new school this year, Arise Academy, a public charter school in New Orleans that is part of the Recovery School District. According to Amy Laurenza, Director of Student Support Services at Arise, Lewis has a mild intellectual disability.

“The first time I came to this school was outside special ed, but the kids was making all that noise,” Lewis said, “The teacher moved me out of the class, she said you the wrong student to be in this class, you gotta go to special ed. Then I was like, it’s not getting distracting down here, it’s really calm and nice.”

Ireall Lewis, 15, a student at Arise Academy. Photo: Julia Shu

Lewis said she gets more teacher attention at her new school and that her reading and writing has improved. She may not know it, but her education is the focus of an ongoing reformation of education in New Orleans that began after Hurricane Katrina, and within that, the struggle to provide quality programs and resources for students with disabilities. This school year, New Orleans became the first city served by a network of all public charter schools called the Recovery School District. Although conversion to a charter system began with high ideals in the wake of the hurricane, it has not been without obstacles.

“Due to the disaster, you start from nothing, you build up, but you’re building the ship as you’re on the ocean, so water’s going to come in,” said Laurenza.

One significant challenge came from providing for students with disabilities. In 2010, a lawsuit filed against the Louisiana Department of Education claimed that schools were failing to evaluate students for disabilities, not providing adequate resources, and were instead punishing them for behaviors that were displays of their diagnosis, such as yelling or disobeying orders.

“Tragically, reformers have left behind those students who would most benefit from innovative educational practices,” stated an administrative complaint in the lawsuit.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit included a blind, autistic child whose school failed to provide an aid to help him navigate through the school. Instead, his mother was forced to attend school with him every day. The lawsuit cited the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as requiring the school to provide such services.

Sarah Carr, journalist and author of “Hope Against Hope,” a book about the New Orleans educational reform, said the problem is partly structural.

“One of the issues they’ve had to figure out structurally is that a lot of times a traditional school district might share different special ed. personnel across schools to make the economies of scale make more sense and that’s much harder when the charters are all individual entities,” said Carr.

The Recovery School District, of which most New Orleans schools are a part, is trying to address these problems. In March this year, a cooperative endeavor agreement between the RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board established a fund for students with severe disabilities. In 2014–2015, the fund will total $6.3 million. The agreement makes changes aimed at helping these students and others with exceptional needs, but only time will tell how this affects special education.

Arise Academy relies on state and federal money and does not receive outside grants. Each of the charter schools receive money per student from the state, called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP. A student with a disability brings in a slightly larger MFP allotment.

“It’s certainly not enough to cover the cost […] to educate them, but you can kind of balance it with the MFP money that you get from the [general education] students,” said Laurenza, “Our budget just goes into the same place and we use all our resources equally.”

Although student evaluations were a point of contention in the lawsuit, Emily Perhamus says her school is able to save on costs and time in providing this service. She works as the Intervention Services Coordinator for ReNEW Accelerated High School and Early Childhood Programs.

“We’re lucky because ReNEW as a network has their own pupil appraisal team that completes evaluations. Other networks contract out, which I can imagine would be problematic, they probably have to spend more money,” said Perhamus, “We don’t have that problem because we have a really great in-house pupil appraisal team.”

Critics of charter schools also claim that the schools’ reliance on test scores incentivizes a disregard for students with disabilities. In Louisiana, schools are graded with a School Performance Score dependent on test scores and, for high schools, graduation numbers. According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, every school with an “A” grade in New Orleans has a below-average number of students with disabilities who qualified for IDEA.

The students at ReNEW Accelerated High School are years behind their grade-level, and many will leave with certificates of achievement, not high school diplomas. Out of a student body of about 390, 65 students have disabilities.

“For our school here, because we’re essentially an alternative school, our SPS score, is consistently so far, abysmally low,” said Perhamus, “It’s a totally ineffective measure of our success.”

Despite this low score (in 2013, the school received an “F”), Perhamus said she hears of parents choosing ReNEW for their children with disabilities because of its reputation for high quality services and education. Enrollment increased this year, and word of mouth and personal experience seem to be serving in lieu of good scores.

But for those parents who can’t find the right school, there’s an alternative: start your own.

“I have a son who is 17 with autism. That was kind of the reason for starting a school,” said Jackie Case, director and founder of Raphael Academy, “After struggling for all of his academic years to find the right place, there just wasn’t the right place.”

Raphael Academy exists exclusively for students with disabilities, and teaches a curriculum based on the Waldorf system, often characterized by its inclusion of the arts and crafts in school.

“You can spend a lot of time fighting the public school system, or you can just get out of it and try to do something different,” said Case, who previously worked as an architect.

The tuition at Raphael Academy is $12,500 annually for young adults. Case estimates that by the time her son finishes high school, her family will have spent at least $200,000 on his education, excluding additional services such as speech therapy and tutoring.

“It’s a big commitment, it’s kind of like putting college up front, except you didn’t get to save for it,” Case laughed.

In contrast, the entire student body at Arise Academy qualifies for free lunch, meaning an income below $44,123 for a family of four. The setting is different from the public charters as well. Walking through the halls of ReNEW, Perhamus complained that the ancient air conditioners cause such severe humidity and leaks that staff returning from vacation find mushrooms inside the school. But at Raphael Academy, the rooms are free of mold and decay. Instead, the air is full of the smell of freshly baked muffins and cookies made by students – teachers believe the kitchen skills will help students live independently in the future.

Students at the Raphael Academy work on craft projects, including weaving and painting. Photo: Julia Shu

Susan Hennington, whose son attends Raphael Academy, believes the cost is worth the benefit.

“Absolutely worth every bit, that’s why I’m still working. I could retire, but I’m going to work as long as I have to be able to afford what I think he needs in order to learn,” she said.

Hennington’s autistic son, Andrew, attended public schools in neighboring Jefferson Parish until middle school, when things started to sour. She said the strict discipline and repetitive lessons didn’t sit well with Andrew. When he misbehaved, the teachers took away his computer time, one thing Hennington felt he truly enjoyed and excelled at. Teachers didn’t take her suggestions for alternative lesson plans.

“I didn’t feel they had the desire to put in the time that was needed,” she said.

Hennington and Case represent the active, involved parents willing to struggle for their children’s education. But Laurenza believes many parents at Arise Academy lack the knowledge and tools to play that role.

Amy Laurenza working with a student at Arise Academy. Photo: Julia Shu

“It’s really unfortunate, but I think we work with a population of extremely disenfranchised people who are not well set up for advocating for their students,” she said, “I think sometimes they’re limited in how much they know about what their students should get or could get or the possibilities of it all.”

Laurenza wishes more parents would come to her with suggestions, just as Hennington did for her son Andrew at his previous school. At ReNEW, Perhamus also said she gets excited about informing parents of their children’s rights under federal and state laws.

“There’s a real need to empower parents so that they know schools are legally obligated to serve their kids,” said Carr. She remembers going on a home visit and meeting a parent who had kept her autistic child at home watching TV, unsure and uninformed about how to navigate the public charter school system.

The economic differences between the public and private schools are hard to ignore. Parents with greater education, money, and time on their side make stronger advocates. Despite these inequalities, Perhamus, who originally moved to New Orleans on assignment with Teach for America but decided to stay when she fell in love with the education reform movement, is optimistic about the future.

“I think that previously, public schools were a place that kids went to because they legally had to. That’s really changing,” she said, “What I’m finding is that a lot of parents and families and students are really believing in the promise of education and really see examples of education leading to improved life outcomes.”

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