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One of New Orleans’ largest charter operators has spent the past year righting its special-education program — and tracking down 62 kids who didn’t receive the extra help they needed.

The Louisiana Department of Education found that ReNEW Schools, which serves 4,100 students at six schools in the city, inflated its special education needs in the 2014-15 school year. Meanwhile, it denied students the specialized instruction they deserved.

New Orleans has struggled with special-education services as most of the schools in the city have become charters since Hurricane Katrina. Ten families sued the Orleans Parish School Board and the state education department in 2010; the settlement brought both agencies under a consent decree in 2014.

Critics have said charter schools cherry-pick students, and a third of principals surveyed admitted they tried to enroll high achievers.

The state Recovery School District created a centralized enrollment system in New Orleans to give students equal access to schools and eliminate enrollment bias. This year, officials have started to track how many students switch schools midyear due to special-education needs.

According to a final report issued last week by a state-appointed monitor, ReNEW has completed nearly all of the corrective work required by the state. But the charter organization still is reviewing students’ education plans and providing extra help to about 16 who are still owed education time. A handful can’t be found.

ReNEW President Kevin Guitterrez said the report reflects hard work by network employees.

“We feel really good about what progress was made and certainly will continue to work on the items in the report that are still in front of us,” he said.

During the 2014-15 school year, school leaders at ReNEW SciTech Academy inflated how much extra time staff would have to spend teaching special-education students, in a scheme to get additional state funding to cover a budget shortage.

According to the state’s investigation, SciTech employees planned to push as many students as they could through special-education evaluations in January 2015 “because school leadership had communicated that ‘thousands of dollars are on the line.’”

The state allocates funding for the second part of each school year based on the number and needs of students in school on Feb. 1.

Evidence collected during the investigation indicated that network leaders knew about the violations and didn’t act, even after a whistleblower alerted them.

That same school year, SciTech failed to provide special-education services to some students who needed them. That violated federal law that requires schools to educate all students in accordance with their abilities.

The Louisiana Department of Education began investigating SciTech Academy in June 2015, after The Lens reported that two administrators had quit due to testing irregularities. In January, the Department of Education released a report showing SciTech had failed to follow state protocol on special education and standardized testing.

The state told ReNEW to take 28 steps to correct what had happened and to prevent something similar in the future. Its deadline was June 30, but the network asked for an extension after hiring a new special-education director.

The state appointed James Meza, a former superintendent in neighboring Jefferson Parish, to monitor the progress. Meza was paid $275 an hour for his services. His 26-page report was finalized Wednesday.

ReNEW went back and reviewed students’ education plans

Kunjan Narechania, assistant superintendent of the state education department, confirmed in a letter sent Wednesday that ReNEW still has work to do in making up for inadequate special-education evaluations and teaching.

ReNEW had to review all individualized education plans created for SciTech students between May 2014 and June 2015 to ensure they were appropriate. Those plans, often referred to by their initials IEP, describe each student’s educational needs and how the school will tailor its teaching to accommodate them.

Those IEPs are how SciTech inflated how much additional teaching time their students needed, which brought in the extra money from the state.

State law requires these plans to be reviewed every three years, but someone at SciTech — the reports don’t say who — waived those reviews. State and federal law require parents to sign off on that; in most cases, they didn’t.

Emily Waterfield, ReNEW’s executive director of Student Support Services, said all the education plans have been reviewed, but some students still need new evaluations.

The report includes a sample of 52 education plans that were incomplete or inadequate. Seventeen were missing signatures, 15 lacked evaluation components and 13 had incomplete evaluations.

All students who are still at ReNEW “are on updated plans,” Waterfield said. “The plans look very different because they’re based on their current needs.”

That’s generally true for students who left SciTech for another school in New Orleans, she added.

“But the tracking down of students, some of which aren’t even in the state anymore, has been very challenging,” she said.

ReNEW will also review all IEPs across the network by Dec. 31, 2017.

Making up missing minutes of specialized education

The state required ReNEW to find the students who were shorted education time and make it up as soon as possible. Generally, that means providing a certain number of minutes in whatever area the student needs help.

In April, ReNEW had identified 62 students owed makeup teaching. As of Wednesday’s report, it had made up services to 38.

Four more students will finish by the end of this month. Another four will be caught up by the end of the school year — two years after they were supposed to get this help.

The individual education plans for eight students, who now attend schools outside the ReNEW network, are being developed. ReNEW says they should get their makeup help this school year. Another student turned down the makeup help.

But there are seven students they can’t locate. “We’ve gone to pretty significant lengths to try to find them,” Waterfield said.

That includes going to the student’s last known address, sending certified mail, and asking neighbors if they know where the family moved.

ReNEW makes changes to organization, special-ed services

Many of the 28 steps required by the state are organizational: Submit evidence of the board’s bylaws and committees, create an organizational chart, write job descriptions, and train the board on special-education compliance and staff on state testing protocol.

The board was required to come up with a plan to replace co-founder Gary Robichaux, who stepped down as CEO before the report was released.

The network had to create guidelines to identify unusual financial activity and create a new whistleblower policy.

ReNEW has done all those things.

With the help of the consulting firm Educational Support Systems, hired by ReNEW’s law firm Adams & Reese, ReNEW has set up a new special-education system in its six schools.

The new system spells out how struggling students are identified. Staff respond with intervention services, such as a reward system for good behavior or telling a student when they are doing something well. If that doesn’t work, the student receives a formal evaluation and, depending on the outcome, special-education services.

At a recent board meeting, consultants Nancy Opalack and Beth Giovanetti gave a presentation about the network’s “transformation plan,” as the board refers to it. The board and consultants praised one another.

This story was originally published by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit, reader-supported newsroom in New Orleans.

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