Photograph; Kelly Fischer says she visited three New Orleans charter schools, and all told her that they couldn’t provide services to her disabled son, Noah. Rush Jagoe for The Wall Street Journal
By Kari Harden | Originally Published at Louisana Weekly. December 2, 2013
When Kelly Fisher moved to New Orleans four years ago, she never imagined finding a school for her son would be such a battle.
Noah has multiple disabilities — he is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed.
When Fischer and her husband (who grew up in New Orleans) relocated in 2009 from Indiana, she thought the school system would be like others she had encountered. She thought she would be directed to a single point person who could point her to the schools that would best fit Noah’s needs.
In Indiana, Fischer worked with a special education coordinator who told her she could enroll Noah at any school (as mandated by law), but who also told her which schools had the best programs that would fit Noah’s unique needs.
The New Orleans system – touted as a model for the nation – was night and day compared to her experience in Indiana. She described navigating the New Orleans system as like being in the Twilight Zone. Everyone she talked to had a different answer.
The schools that seemed like they might be a good option were already full, and others told her flat out they couldn’t take Noah because of his disabilities – or just never returned her calls.
Fischer knows Noah requires more than other kids, but she also knows he has rights.
Now Fischer is trying to find a high school for Noah well in advance, and the process is already starting to feel like a recurring nightmare.
Having made the decision to go public with her fight, Fischer is one of the named plaintiff’s on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) 2010 lawsuit against the state, which claims that children with special needs in New Orleans are being discriminated against and denied their right to a free and appropriate education as mandated under federal law.
The case has not yet gone to trial, and is being analyzed on whether it is viable as a class-action suit. In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) put forth a motion to have the case dismissed, but was denied by a federal judge.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), state Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states receiving IDEA funding must provide special education and related services designed to meet the learning needs of eligible children with disabilities from preschool through age 21.
In addition, schools are required to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for eligible students which details specifies services to be provided and how often.
Noah never had any problem getting those needs met in Indiana.
But talking to other parents in New Orleans, one of the most frequent questions Fischer gets is “Have you thought about moving?” But Fischer said that feels like running away from the problem. And she desperately wants to be part of the solution. For Noah and for all parents and children with special needs.
When Fischer has tried to communicate her frustrations –– she said for the most part she is told that there were just a few bad apples in an otherwise compliant system, that she is talking to the wrong people, or it is altogether denied that the things she experienced ever really happened.
Fischer acknowledges a lot of good things happening in education in the experimental city, but “It’s not okay to ignore the things that are not working,” she said. “If New Orleans is a model – fix what isn’t working.”
After four years – Fischer said she has seen progress, but not nearly enough. The phrase she still hears ad nauseum is “We are working on it.”
Eden Heilman, lead SPLC attorney in the lawsuit against the state, describes the special education problem as systemic.
By the nature of the competitive nearly all-charter privatized system, a school’s survival is dependent on financial stability and improving academic performance, Heilman said.
Students with disabilities are expensive, and not likely to produce high standardized test scores, she said.
Heilman said that the SPLC started investigating the issue in New Orleans after receiving the following complaints: 1) that schools were refusing to enroll kids with special needs, 2) that kids were not being evaluated on the front end or that pre-Katrina evaluations were lost or not being accepted, 3) that kids with special needs were being unjustly disciplined, and 4), that schools were not providing the services outlined in the IEP’s.
Heilman said that the SPLC lawsuit was filed after attempts to sponsor legislation that would ensure better compliance, and after failed mediation attempts with the state. From the earliest attempts to engage the LDE, Heilman said they faced “massive rebuttal.”
At the first school Noah attended in 2009, he was put in a regular classroom without any aide or supplemental materials.
He was given a worksheet to fill out at one point, and at another point a blank sheet of paper and told to draw pictures of things that are red. (Noah has been blind since birth).
Fischer attended every day with her son, who needed assistance not only in the classroom but to go the restroom, and to eat.
That didn’t last for more than a few weeks, she said. At the second school they tried, there were more resources for Noah and things improved a little. But he still wasn’t getting all of the services on his IEP plan, Fischer said. Noah needed a child-specific paraprofessional – a one-on-on aide. It never happened. In addition, Noah was spending an hour and a half each way on the bus. That was too much “non-productive time,” Fischer said, adding that each night he has two hours of physical therapy at home.
So Fischer started looking at other schools closer to their house.
One school told her that he had to be able to function in a regular classroom to be admitted, and that the school was equipped to serve mild disabilities, but not moderate ones.
Another school told Fischer that they would accept him, but that they couldn’t provide the services he needed. “Noah won’t be hurt here, but he won’t be helped,” Fischer said she was told.
Finally they found a good fit. At Lafayette Academy Charter School, his third school, Noah thrived. Fischer said she was initially afraid to even tell the principal about Noah’s disabilities. But she did, and was told that whatever services they didn’t already have in place – like for vision impairment – they told Fischer they would get. “I was shocked,” she recalled. “And then I was shocked that I was shocked.”
She then was terrified he wouldn’t get in, but his application was accepted. “They went above and beyond,” she said. Now 12, Noah is still at Lafayette.
But now Fischer has to find a high school that can meet his needs — and said that other parents have told her that finding a high school can be much harder than finding an elementary school. She doesn’t want to enroll him in multiple schools again before finding the right one.
Thus far, much to her disappointment, Fischer said she’s found that the “counseling out” and discrimination she faced four years ago has not gone away.
About a month ago, Fischer attended a high school fair to start the search.
She was upfront about Noah’s needs: he’s not on a diploma track – just wants a certification of completion, he’s not on a college prep track, but rather needing a focus on learning community, vocational and independent living skills.
At the fair, the representative from Sophie B. Wright Charter School told Fischer that the school is full-inclusion only, and not a good fit. They suggested a private school – not an option for Fischer because of cost, but also because she has found that many private schools may serve vision-impairment or autism, but not both.
The representative from Cohen College Prep said that the school is geared toward college-bound students, and not a good fit.
The Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School representative told Fischer that they can’t provide a child-specific paraprofessional.
Fischer puts the bulk of the responsibility not on the individual schools but on the state – which is responsible for monitoring and ensuring that every public school – including charters – follows the law.
While the LDE pushes the autonomy of the charter schools, the state set up the system in New Orleans and is still responsible for making sure the laws are followed, Heilman said.
Many of the representatives from individual schools were very nice and genuinely want to help, she said, but they say don’t have the resources, and often aren’t fully aware of their obligations under the law.
But before even authorizing a charter school, it’s on the state to make sure that the school fully knows its responsibility regarding special needs, and that they have access to the necessary resources, Fischer said.
In a unified district, hypothetically 10 schools could share one physical or speech therapist, Heilman said. In New Orleans, each of the more than 40 districts are on the hook to pay for that therapist alone – even if they have only one student who requires it.
There are other places nationally that are figuring out ways to pool resources, she said, one solution to the charter budgetary barriers.
According to LDE, there’s nothing stopping schools from sharing resources. The LDE also cited structures in place to alleviate the costs, including a “high risk money pool” to which schools can apply, and a differentiated funding formula that assigns a higher per-pupil amount for kids with disabilities. While the state takes the position that this is sufficient for access to the funding necessary for special education, Fischer continues to be told by schools that they can’t afford what Noah requires.
And Heilman still sees a lack of incentive for schools to take more kids with special needs, and a lack of oversight from the state into legal compliance.
According to the LDE, under the monitoring system complaints are investigated, and schools must correct any non-compliances. Since 2005, 41 schools in the Recovery School District were cited for not complying with IDEA, an LDE spokesperson said, and made the required corrections. No schools have been shut down as a result of noncompliance.
The LDE also points to the OneApp—a blind application process—as way to ensure that schools cannot discriminate.
But it’s too big of a gamble for Fischer to assume that the schools are in compliance with the law and can give Noah what he needs, she said. And she wants to communicate Noah’s needs to the school from the outset so that they can make preparations if needed – like ordering braille writers and audio books. “I don’t want Noah to be part of their learning curve,” she said. Fischer wants as much information about a school’s current special education capabilities as she can get – which she has not found readily provided anywhere – and she wants the school to know as much information about Noah as possible.
But from the state, “no information” is the default, she said. According to the LDE, determining what school to attend is a personal decision for families – whether or not they have special needs, and that they must take on the responsibility of learning about the different schools through expos, visits, and the family resource centers.
In response to the issues raised in the SPLC lawsuit, LDE spokesman Barry Landry gave the following statement: “In 2012, the Department and Recovery School District launched a unified enrollment system called OneApp to standardize and simplify the application and enrollment process. The OneApp system does not consider whether a student has a disability, or the nature or severity of a disability, which ensures that participating schools cannot engage in enrollment discrimination. Additionally, the Department has worked with LEAs to establish and maintain lawful and appropriate procedures in regards to discipline to ensure that students with disabilities, in particular, received certain procedural protections required by IDEA. These replace a system that for years woefully under-served students with disabilities before Hurricane Katrina. It would be very hard to argue that students with disabilities aren’t better off.”
But after battling it for four years, Fischer still doesn’t see a system that is working for all kids with special needs.
“None of this has been pleasant,” she said. “None of this has been easy. When you are a parent of a child with disabilities, you want to focus on helping him – instead of focusing on fighting for his basic rights as a human.”
Fischer said she often thinks about the parents without the resources she has used in her battle to get Noah that to which he is legally entitled. Fischer has family members and friends who have spent their entire careers in special education in other states – people she can call and ask “Are my concerns valid?,” and “Is this right – can they do this?” She knows what her son’s rights are, and can attend meetings to advocate for them. Fischer said she knows it is especially hard for parents with children with challenges that aren’t as visible as Noah’s blindness – like disabilities that can appear to be just bad behavior to the untrained eye.
Often the most vulnerable kids don’t have a parent to navigate the complex and confusing system, Heilman said.
“If people are going to model their system after New Orleans, they need to make sure the system is capable of addressing the needs of all kids – especially the most vulnerable. Wholesaling an entire system that neglects an entire population of students is irresponsible,” Heilman said.
Fischer knows that she has to ask for more — that Noah is more expensive to educate than most other children. She knows many schools are facing tight budgets but want to do the right thing. “There are troops on the ground fighting the good fight, but they are not getting what they need from the state to make it happen,” she said.
“I don’t want Noah to be a red item on the budget, and turned away because of that – and because he won’t help their scores.”
Fischer’s advice for other parents: Know the law, know what your child requires, and be prepared to fight to get it. So why should taxpayers even care about educating children with special needs?
Heilman said that, for one, they legally should.
In addition, studies have shown that all kids are benefited by being exposed to other children with a variety of needs – increasing empathy and fostering new learning techniques, she said.
And, “We are all part of a larger community – in the long term, the effects of the failure of an individual to get an education fall on that community. If we don’t give services on the front end, we pay for it on the back end,” Heilman said.
Fischer knows firsthand what she — and her seven-year-old “normal” son — have learned from Noah. “I forget how much of his day is work. Even when someone says hello, it’s work for him to figure out how to respond,” she said. “He amazes me — every day he wakes up smiling — it amazes me that he can be so happy with the world despite the fact that it’s a monumental challenge—his Mount Everest—every day.”
This article originally published in the December 2, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.