Charter Schools Help Improve Special Education in New Orleans

This guest editorial appeared in the Times-Picayune, and I wanted to share it with you.

Charter Schools Help Improve Special Education in New Orleans: Leslie Jacobs

In fourth grade, James, a special needs student at John Dibert Charter School, was struggling academically and behaviorally. He was making daily trips to the dean’s office for disruptive behavior and emotional outbursts. James is now on honor roll in eighth grade, scored mastery and advanced on state tests and is applying to Ben Franklin High School.

Zaria transferred to Arthur Ashe Charter School at the beginning of second grade as a special education student, reading at kindergarten level. By the end of fourth grade she scored mastery in English.

Zaria and James are two of the many students who have benefited from the city’s improvement in serving students with special needs.

Our schools must educate every student who enters their doors, no matter his or her physical, emotional or mental challenges.

New Orleans has historically done a poor job of delivering on this mandate. We did not do a good job educating students with special needs before Hurricane Katrina, and we did not do a good job in the early years after the levees broke.

The recent settlement agreement between the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) marks a historical step forward.

In 2003, only one in 10 children with special needs left our high schools with a diploma.

Today, nearly half (48 percent) of ninth-graders with special needs will graduate with their peers in four years. New Orleans’ graduation rate for students with special needs now surpasses the state average by 11 percentage points.

Growth in academic achievement for students with disabilities is equally impressive, climbing from 18 percent proficiency in 2008 to 44 percent in 2013.

What has driven this improvement?

First, the Recovery School District (RSD) focused on equity in access. The OneApp enrollment process, implemented in 2012, is a single application for all but eight public schools in Orleans Parish. Prior to the OneApp, some schools avoided enrolling students with special needs. By centralizing and monitoring enrollment, students with special needs are now guaranteed equal access to the school of their choice.

Centralized enrollment, along with the recently implemented citywide expulsion process, creates rules that prevent students from being pushed out of schools due to their disabilities.

Secondly, the RSD focused on getting schools the funding needed to provide the extra services required for students with disabilities. RSD schools now get up to three times more money to serve students with the most significant needs.

Additionally, the OPSB and RSD developed the Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund for schools serving particularly high-cost students. OPSB seeded the fund with $5 million and will provide $1.4 million each year.

These changes improve access and funding, but even more importantly, schools have improved the quality of services provided to special needs students. One of the advantages of charter schools is the autonomy to innovate and respond to needs quicker and better.

ReNEW Schools offers a program for students with moderate to intensive emotional disturbance and related disabilities. Collegiate Academies has a Special Education Transition Program to support job-skill development for students with intellectual disabilities.

FirstLine Schools offer a therapeutic gardening program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The winner of | The Times-Picayune’s education entrepreneur contest, Vera Triplett, is starting Noble Minds Charter School, which will work with children who struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges.

And more innovation is in the works. Next fall, in collaboration with OPSB and Tulane Medical School, the RSD will open a therapeutic program for students with mental and behavioral health needs that affect their ability to succeed in a traditional school setting.

Looking at the progress we have made in the past five years, New Orleans’ system of schools has been able to work collaboratively and rapidly to implement these innovative solutions. Our improvement has truly been a citywide effort that has RSD, OPSB, charter school operators and educators working together to improve educational opportunities for students with disabilities.

Schools across the country are continually striving to better serve students with special needs, but improvements tend to be incremental and implemented at a snail’s pace. The responsiveness of our system of schools to address the historical shortcomings in special education has truly been remarkable.


For more on the settlement of the special education lawsuit, you can read this statement and fact sheet from the Louisiana Department of Education or this article in the Times-Picayune.

To read the guest editorial online at, click here.