New Orleans charter schools (issues with special needs students)

Some have hailed New Orleans charter schools as a national model for any city hoping to save a failing public school system. Fox 8 is looking at an issue some complain has been overshadowed.

Parents say their special needs children have often been ignored or rejected. They say it's not only hurtful, but it violates federal law…

There are 4,500 special needs students in Orleans Parish, and there's growing evidence that the system isn't doing a good enough job. A recent lawsuit alleges that the graduation rate of special needs students in Orleans Parish is just one-third of the state's graduation rate for special needs students.

Some parents never returned after Katrina, because they found special needs education better in Texas or Georgia, where they relocated after the storm…[NOTE: It has been speculated that the exodus of lower performing students is why New Orleans test scores have improved, not because Paul Vallas’ charter system is superior]

“It was bad before, but when you create this system where they all want to do their own things, there is no system anymore, just actors who want to do their own thing,” Markey [D.J. Markey of Pyramid Parent Resources] explained…

Up to this point, Orleans parents have had to fend for themselves, often going from school to school, to see which one would enroll their special needs child.

“If you just go to a charter it will solve all your problems,” Rob Curren said.

“But charters are our problem,” added Penny Curren.

As they searched for a place for Bennett, the Currens say they were shocked at one charter school in particular, where they witnessed a special needs child being totally ignored.

“I asked, and said, can you tell me about this little boy? And he said there's nothing there, and that was it for me. I never looked back at that school,” Penny Curren said…

Each charter is set up as an individual school district, so even though the state is now starting to use a universal application, it may be hard to force charters to take special education students…

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A legal complaint alleges that the Big Easy’s schools discriminate against children with disabilities. What good is the charter revolution if it doesn’t reach the students who are most in need?

New Orleans, where more than 70 percent of public schools will be independently chartered after this school year, has been placed on a pedestal as a shining model by education reformers. The new documentary Waiting for “Superman”, which hopes to serve as a call to arms for education reform, devotes a page of its Web site to touting New Orleans’s new citywide school-choice system…

But is this supposed revolution really helping the most-disadvantaged students in New Orleans, those with special needs such as physical, behavioral, or mental disabilities? In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a legal complaint against the Louisiana Department of Education alleging that schools have been turning away parents with disabled children and shirking their responsibilities to ensure that the special-needs students they do serve actually benefit from academic instruction. The complaint asserts that New Orleans schools are in violation of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), particularly in terms of excessive punishment of children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Under IDEA, all public schools must implement an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each special-needs student before taking punitive measures. However, suspension and expulsion rates of these students are shockingly high in New Orleans: overall, almost a third of the city’s 4,500 special-needs students have been suspended by the Recovery School District, the entity created by the state to take over failing New Orleans schools. Specific RSD schools such as Sojourner Truth Academy and New Orleans College Prep Charter Academy have suspended more than half their disabled student populations—53.8 and 52.2 percent, respectively, according to the Louisiana Department of Education’s special education Performance Profile. They are not anomalies, either. At least four other RSD charters suspend their special-needs students at three to four times the rate that their general-education students are suspended. The statewide average for suspensions of students with disabilities was 16.4 percent in the 2008-09 school year; RFD suspended 26.8 percent of its students with disabilities that year. In Baltimore, a city frequently used as a comparison with New Orleans because of its similarity in terms of student population, 13.5 percent of disabled students were suspended in the 2008–09 school year.

The data further suggest that when not suspended, disabled students aren’t getting the education they deserve, either because teachers aren’t working the IEPs or because they’re not identifying children who may suffer from learning disabilities. Perhaps as a consequence, only 6.4 percent of students with disabilities in the Recovery School District graduated in the 2008–09 school year, while 37 percent of them performed “well below grade level” and 50 percent failed to complete school altogether. In Baltimore, public schools graduated 24.2 percent of their special-ed students with a diploma, while 33.5 percent dropped out in 2007–08. St. Louis, another city with a similar student profile, graduated 29.5 percent of its disabled population, while 31.5 percent dropped out in 2008–09…

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