Are NOLA Schools Failing Students With Disabilities?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's go from politicians on the top to some people who are disadvantaged. It's a story of New Orleans. Schools there struggle to provide for students with physical and mental disabilities. Even before Hurricane Katrina, parents had to fight for extra help and many parents say things are harder now that the public school district has shifted almost entirely to charter schools. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Crystal Walker is a 34-year-old single mother of three, two boys ages 7 and 9, and a 12-year-old daughter. All three attend Akili Academy charter school in New Orleans. All have been diagnosed with various learning, physical and emotional disabilities, including ADHD and dyslexia. Walker alleges that every time she's tried to get her kids additional school support, help that federal disability law says has a right to, the school has pushed back.
CRYSTAL WALKER: They wanted for me to just remove my children from the school because they felt as though they didn't need to make the accommodations for them.
WESTERVELT: For example, she says her youngest son, 7-year-old James, was struggling academically and has had serious behavioral problems, but when she sought help, Walker says one of her son's teachers told her James's problems were her fault.
WALKER: …Basically that I'm a bad parent and that I send my children to school to be a nuisance to the school, and that I'm not supporting the school nor the school culture.
WESTERVELT: Instead of a thorough evaluation she says James, age 7, was repeatedly suspended.
WALKER: They did suspend him all the time. Suspend, suspend, suspend, suspend, up until the point of where they recommended him for expulsion.
WESTERVELT: Walker has pursued legal action with both State and Federal Departments of Education. Citing confidentiality, school officials would not discuss Walker's complaints. The school does have a new principal, Allison Lowe and Walker concedes Lowe's trying hard to improve things. Lowe says she's hired a full-time psychologist, put two others on contract and says she's crafting a new program to better support students with a broad range of disabilities, especially ones with mental and emotional health challenges.
ALLISON LOWE: In our city we know that we have a mental health crisis. Right now we're putting together our version of a setting that a student who has very high needs could be in and be safe while also being able to learn.
WESTERVELT: But it's not just Crystal Walker, scores of parents with special needs kids here say long-standing problems have gotten worse.
KARRAN HARPER ROYAL: The needs of children with disabilities have been an afterthought in New Orleans's all-charter landscape.
WESTERVELT: Parent and education activist Karran Harper Royal says at first she had big hopes that the charter revolution here, with its mantra of innovation and change, would mean really good things for her two sons with disabilities and all special education kids in the city.
ROYAL: I tell people I cannot believe I am longingly wishing for the old days of the Orleans Parish school system when it comes to children with special needs.
JOSHUA PERRY: Right now we're seeing a lot of schools that are simply unable to serve some of the most vulnerable and highest-needs kids.
WESTERVELT: Joshua Perry is director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. He and others here say the problem is systemic. Baked into the charter system is the reality that each school becomes its own district so now pooling resources, knowledge and expertise is simply no longer happening in the same way. Each charter is, in effect, its own island.
PERRY: That means that every school needs to be able to provide the full range of services that every kid needs. That's impossible, absent the kind of economies of scale that are present in large school districts.
WESTERVELT: The state-backed Recovery School District, or RSD, is the city's charter school watchdog and critics say its oversight just isn't good enough. Patrick Walsh is director of school performance for the RSD. He says they are working on changes that go beyond mere legal compliance to help students with disabilities thrive in the classroom.
PATRICK WALSH: We are pleased with where we stand right now with monitoring, but our monitoring is focused 100 percent on compliance and we don't think that's enough.
WESTERVELT: The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit on behalf of special-needs kids in New Orleans four years ago. The case has dragged on. Recently the presiding federal judge ordered mediation and appointed another federal judge to help spur negotiations.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.