NEW ORLEANS — A bubble machine and a table lined with cookies and coloring books welcomed families coming for a midsummer meet-and-greet at Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning, a new charter school in the Carrollton neighborhood. One new student, a 5-year-old boy wearing an eyepatch, seemed scared by the new surroundings; he clung to his father and made noises of distress. This didn’t faze the school director, Vera Triplett, at all.

“He’s fine,” she said cheerfully. “We’re quite used to this.”

Noble Minds is the kind of school that takes every kind of child, Triplett said. This approach stands out in this city just three years after local and state school officials settled a lawsuit that alleged massive and systemic discrimination against students with disabilities. The school, whose full name is Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning, offers therapy, yoga, meditation and social-emotional classes to every child. And it does not use suspensions or expulsions as punishment, Triplett said. (Noble Minds is not related to the Noble charter network in Chicago, which is known for its strict disciplinary practices.)

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“We are not a school that suspends or expels students,” Triplett promised parents at a meeting this July. “We just do not do that under any circumstances, for any reason.”

The school director believes that therapeutic approach has made the school attractive to families of kids with disabilities that affect their emotions or behavior.

“We do attract a number of families of kids that have special needs because of the environment that we provide and we do attract a number of parents that have had issues at schools, in particular with discipline,” Triplett said. However, she emphasized that the school is not exclusively for students in special education: “We are a school for everybody.”

Around 16 percent of the students have been officially identified as needing special education, compared to the citywide average of 13 percent. That number is expected to grow as more students are evaluated, according to the school’s COO, Kristine Barker.

Noble Minds is not the only school in New Orleans that has put a greater emphasis on serving all students, including those with disabilities, in recent years. The entire system — the only public school system in America made up almost entirely of charter schools — had a wake-up call in 2010, when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Louisiana Department of Education over New Orleans charter schools’ treatment of students with disabilities.

The state-run Recovery School District governed most of the charter schools in New Orleans at the time. The Orleans Parish School Board, which controlled all city schools before Hurricane Katrina, was responsible for a small number of high-performing traditional and charter schools.

Reforms were put in place even before the SPLC lawsuit was settled in 2015: The city’s schools adopted a centralized expulsion system so students can’t be kicked out of schools without oversight, and began a citywide enrollment system known as the OneApp, which gives all students, with or without disabilities, a chance to enroll at the school of their choice.

In July, the Orleans Parish School Board assumed oversight of nearly all the city’s public schools. For the first time since before Katrina, most of the schools in New Orleans now answer to a local elected body. (Noble Minds is an exception. It’s overseen by the state school board.)

Some advocates hope the transition to local control will lead to clearer citywide standards for special education. But the system has changed since Katrina. Charter schools are designed to be autonomous; each school is its own school district. The city school board doesn’t manage their day-to-day operations or set policies on issues like staffing or what types of programs to use.

Although all schools must accept students with disabilities, a few independent charter schools, including Noble Minds, Cypress Academy and Morris Jeff Community School, have placed special emphasis on the inclusion of all children. Larger charter networks such as Collegiate Academies and New Orleans College Prep have also expanded their focus beyond college-or-bust, investing in intensive programs to help students with intellectual and other significant disabilities prepare for life as independent adults.

But the challenges of serving a higher-than-average population of children with disabilities can be daunting. A single, small charter school doesn’t have the economies of scale that can make it easier to afford specialists like speech pathologists or sign language interpreters. The first few years after a charter opens, before it has a full student population, are particularly precarious.

Cypress Academy learned that the hard way. In just three years, its special education population ballooned to 26 percent of the student body, according to a letter from parents to the Orleans Parish School Board. The school projected that it would need an additional $600,000 to stay open for another year. In May, the Cypress board of directors sought to merge with another charter, Lafayette Academy. Instead, after parent outcry, the Orleans Parish School Board, which authorizes most charters in the city, announced it would take over management of the school for the next two years.

“The worst mistake you can make is getting a reputation for being good with special children,” lamented Sidney Longwell Jr., a father with a son who has autism at Cypress, on Facebook. “If you build it, they will come.”

Wider problems outside of the school system exacerbate the challenges individual schools face in serving students with disabilities. There’s a nationwide shortage of qualified special education teachers. The net of medical and psychological services that support children outside of school is riddled with holes, which makes services within the school system all the more important.

“I would say one of our most pervasive challenges just has to do with the fact that there is not a continuum of behavioral health care in the city,” said Liz Marcell Williams, founder of the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program for children with significant behavioral health disabilities.

New Orleans isn’t the only city with a high number of charters grappling with how to meet the needs of children with disabilities in a decentralized system, said Lauren Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. But since New Orleans is almost all charters, she said, those issues are “on steroids.” From Denver to Washington, D.C., Rhim said, high-charter school systems are facing the same question: “How do we have a choice district but also ensure that students and resources are distributed in an equitable way?”

“Miss Amber!”

Back at the Noble Minds family meeting, Langston Kali, a 6-year-old boy with long curly hair, ran up to one of Noble’s assistant teachers and jumped into her arms, happy to see her after the summer. “Miss Amber!” he shouted. Then he dashed off to the school yard to play basketball.

The boy’s mom, Amika Kali, was glad to see him so excited to be back to school. Before he started at Noble Minds, his school experience had not been so positive.

“Langston at his prior school basically got in trouble for surviving,” Kali said. Her son has a speech disability that makes it difficult for him to vocalize his feelings. Frustration over not being able to express himself often made him lash out or start crying, and then he’d get in trouble.

“I’m not setting him up to be suspended. I want him to love school,” Kali said.

Last year she switched Langston to Noble Minds, where the students take social-emotional classes that teach them how to express and manage their feelings in a healthy, controlled way. The school has its own clinical director who manages counseling and therapeutic programs. When Kali gets calls from school about Langston’s behavior, she said, the focus isn’t your kid is in trouble but rather how can we help?

“Instead of them being penalized for being little humans, they’re going to be given coping skills and mechanisms to help them be little humans,” Kali said.

These resources have a cost, and it’s more than local, state or federal government provide. To offer its services, Noble Minds has had to rely heavily on outside donations. Last year, 36 percent of its budget came from non-governmental sources. A grant from the Institute for Mental Hygiene, for example, helps pay the clinical director’s salary. The Walton Family Foundation, a pro-charter organization led by the family that runs Walmart, has donated $325,000 for start-up costs. The students are predominantly low-income; in the last school year, 81 percent were considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data.

“As we grow, our budget will continue to change as our governmental funding increases (with student increases) and our start-up funds decrease,” wrote Barker, the COO, in an email.

Triplett, the school director, knows her school has higher costs. But she says that the upfront expense results in lower long-term costs to society. Triplett used to be a counselor for incarcerated youth — an experience that left her determined to start a school that did not contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. She believes that harsh disciplinary measures worsen existing behavioral problems, because students are not given the tools they need to learn better behaviors.

“I have had the opportunity to see the end result of not addressing some of the things that lead to maladaptive behaviors in the first place,” she said. “The punitive nature of discipline is just counter-productive to what we want to see happen. Putting kids into the system, particularly into the prison system, only teaches them to be better criminals.”

“You will find a way to make it happen”

Noble Minds plans to rely less on philanthropy over time as it adds more grades and becomes a full K-8 school. Currently it has three mixed-grade classes covering kindergarten through third grade. But at the moment, Triplett says she has to spend half of her time fundraising.

“We have to have other sources of funding other than what we get from the state and federal government, otherwise it’s just not enough,” she said.

When the school first opened last year, it had a staff of 11 full-time and two part-time employees. The overall cost to serve 37 students was $988,782 — over $26,000 per student. While the price tag might seem high, a school will typically have a high per-student cost in its first year due to a small student enrollment and high start-up expenses. To save money, many staff members at Noble Minds hold multiple roles.

“Everyone here is doing multiple jobs,” Triplett said. “I am the CEO, founder, school leader, I help serve lunch, sometimes I clean up. And everybody here falls into that category.”

Size is a challenge that all independent charters and small networks face, said Nahliah Webber, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network, a nonprofit public policy organization.

“I’m just really concerned about the capacity of schools to meet the needs of kids that come into their school building given that they do not have the economy of scale,” Webber said. She’s particularly concerned about schools that are not part of a larger network: “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for single-site charters.”

The district has a tiered funding formula that gives schools more money based on the significance of a child’s disability — the number of service minutes required each week. In 2016-17, schools received an additional $1,499 in funding for a Tier 1 student and $22,486 for a student at Tier 5, the highest level. However, even that might not be enough to cover the costs of some students. For example, schools pay up to $225 per day — $40,500 per school year — for children who need to attend the off-site Therapeutic Day Program. Although charters can apply to a special emergency fund, the Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund, when a student needs exceptionally costly services, schools with above-average special education populations can still come up short.

“Students with special needs are not equitably allocated across the system,” Webber said.

Despite the challenges facing single-site charters, Triplett is confident that her school will find a way to succeed. “I don’t think that economy of scale makes a difference,” she said. “I think that if you intend to be a good actor around all students, then you will be. And you will find a way to make it happen.”

But sometimes good intentions aren’t enough.

Cypress Academy, by academic metrics, was thriving: Even with a quarter of its students in special education, it still beat the state average in 2018 on end-of-year standardized tests. (The school is comparatively affluent; only 66 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged, a rate 15 points below the city’s average.)

When the school opened in 2015, its founders planned to set aside 20 percent of its seats for children with reading disabilities. But Cypress quickly got a reputation for providing excellent special education services to children with all types of disabilities, Longwell, the Cypress parent, said in an interview. Word spread through the parent grapevine, and soon enrollment included a large population of high-needs students that required extra staffing and services.

“Cypress wasn’t set up as a school for special needs,” Longwell said. “It was a typical charter school. It just got that reputation.”

For example, according to an independent monitoring report, Cypress had at least nine students with autism last year — a disproportionately large number for a school of only around 150 students. Longwell, whose son has autism, said several families who attended the same clinic as his child decided to enroll their kids in Cypress.

“There aren’t other options,” he said. “You’ve got to roll the dice. Where do you send your child if even the private schools are saying, ‘We can’t handle them’? … Cypress is the best option and that’s absolutely why that percentage shot up.”

Longwell was thrilled with his son’s experience at Cypress, but he pointed out that Cypress’s founder, Bob Berk, didn’t set out to open a school in which one in four kids has a disability. That’s just the population the school attracted.

“Bob was like, ‘Hell yeah. If we’re going to have this many kids, let’s get good at it,'” Longwell said. Berk declined to comment for this article.

Ben Kleban, an Orleans Parish School Board member, said the school’s budget problems were not due to the high cost of educating students with disabilities. Cypress was overstaffed, he said. “They were probably three or four positions from breaking even,” said Kleban, who is also the founder of New Orleans College Prep. “They just needed to slim down a bit.”

At parent meetings after the school announced it would close, Berk said he’d considered cutting school staff but was uncomfortable running the school with any fewer staff.

The theory behind a competitive, all-charter school system is the free market will produce quality; the best schools will attract more students and succeed. Cypress did attract students. But Longwell believes it is exactly what he called “market pressures” that almost shut the school down.

“The system is set up to not reward people who do the right thing,” he said.

Monitoring Progress

That system does have oversight built in, as required by the 2015 settlement between the state Department of Education and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Every 120 days, independent monitors release reports on how a sample of New Orleans schools are complying with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Twelve schools are chosen based on various data measures; the monitors look through student records and interview staff members, but do not visit classrooms.

Zoe Savitsky, deputy legal director of the law center’s children’s rights division, said that the city has made “significant strides” since the lawsuit was filed in 2010, but most schools still struggle to comply with federal law.

“The single most common trend that I can point to is that the first time a school is monitored, it pretty much always is non-compliant,” she said. “Often they then get to compliance through the work of the defendants and the work of the monitors, but not every school in New Orleans has been monitored yet.”

A report released this July ordered 10 out of 12 schools to fulfill corrective action plans “to address findings of systemic noncompliance.” Issues cited included the failure to include parents in important meetings about individual students; the failure to find social workers or occupational therapists when students needed their services; and the failure to screen students sufficiently for potential disabilities even after they failed core classes. In spite of its reputation for providing high-quality services for students in special education, Cypress Academy was one of the schools cited, for missing some details in the documentation of students’ goals and current abilities.

As the report showed, local efforts to make progress in New Orleans are stymied by a nationwide shortage of qualified specialists.

“We don’t have enough teachers,” said Aqua Stovall, co-founder of the city’s Special Education Leader Fellowship, or SELF. “We don’t have enough ABA therapists. We don’t have enough school psychologists. All the related service providers, there’s a shortage.”

Stovall started SELF to help train more special education coordinators, after noticing how many had burnt out and left the profession because “they didn’t feel like they had the necessary tools in a decentralized system to do their job.”

She said it’s important for all the players in the city to work together — not just the schools but also universities, which can create certification programs for specialists and hospitals to provide clinical support.

Nicole Mayeux, a SELF graduate, helped launch a program for students with the most significant disabilities at the Cohen College Prep high school. The program, called the Academy of Career and Community Education, works with students ages 14-22 who have cognitive disabilities that put them at a fourth-grade level or below. They learn self-sufficiency skills so that they can transition to life outside of the public school system, and are placed in paid internships.

Mayeux says that Cohen’s charter network, New Orleans College Prep, is one of several college-focused charter networks that have realized they need to prepare students who aren’t likely to go to college.

“Historically there hasn’t been as much of a roadmap for, ‘If (college) is not the goal, then what is the goal?'” she said.

The Collegiate Academies charter school network offers a program similar to Cohen’s: the Opportunities Academy, which also helps students with intellectual disabilities become self-sufficient. The nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans gave over $1 million to Collegiate for the Opportunities program and almost $600,000 to New Orleans College Prep for different special education initiatives, including the ACCE program.

Mayeux said that working in a decentralized system can lead to extra challenges for the special education staff. Under the OneApp system, parents can enroll their child in a school without disclosing the child’s disability. The system was designed that way to help prevent disability discrimination.

“On any given day at the start of school, you could have a student walk in who needs a one-to-one paraprofessional and also needs medical services, to have a feeding tube, or needs diapering and toileting services,” Mayeux said. If a student has a rare disability a school hasn’t seen before, school administrators might have to find an outside contractor to provide services.

“We rise to meet the challenge, but it is a unique challenge you might not face as much in a traditional district,” Mayeux said.

Rhim, of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said it’s important for the school system to inform parents of their options so they know that special programs like ACCE exist. She noted that several cities with a high number of charter schools have discussed the idea of allowing a few charter schools to be certified as having particular expertise serving students with specific disabilities. Although specialized programs could appeal to some families in New Orleans, the city would have to remain vigilant that other schools still accepted all students regardless of ability, she said.

“There’s a chasm there between the goals of open enrollment and avoiding discrimination and the practical realities that parents need information,” Rhim said.

A return to local control

Now that the local school district once again oversees the city’s schools, Marcell Williams, of the Therapeutic Day Program, said she hopes to see uniform standards.

“One of the conversations that’s happening citywide now is thinking about, ‘Let’s set a minimum bar for what should exist in every school,'” Marcell Williams said.

That would mean setting standards on which services — like specialized transportation or self-contained classrooms — are offered in every single charter, versus which services for rarer disabilities could be offered in a few specialized schools. But that has not yet materialized, she said.

“There’s not a collective vision for what world-class special education service should look like,” Marcell Williams said.

Orleans Parish schools’ spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said that the district promotes consistent standards by enforcing federal and state regulations.

“We hold schools accountable to these regulations through our charter framework,” Ellis said. “We also have an additional layer of compliance and monitoring under the SPLC consent judgment….OPSB has and will continue to provide citywide training, in addition to developing additional tools and resources to support schools in the implementation of these regulations/guidelines.”

Even so, the New Orleans school system still differs substantially from a traditional district. Any new policies that set city-wide standards on topics like programming or teacher training could set off debate on the limits of charter schools’ closely-guarded autonomy.

Webber said that special education should be more centralized, with more decisions made at the district level. She argues that special education is a civil right — and there should be no difference between schools when it comes to civil rights.

“We have to declare what our values are, what our nonnegotiables are,” said Webber. “And what our nonnegotiable are, I think that we should have those addressed at the district level.”

But Triplett said she believes decentralization has played a more positive role. If families didn’t have a choice, she said, schools wouldn’t feel pressure to serve their needs.

“I think decentralizing and autonomy and choice play a huge role in driving quality and incentivizing people to provide high-quality seats to students,” she said. “I think the only way we can go back to a centralized system is if every school in the system was offering high-quality seats, offering the level of services to special-needs students that they needed. And right now, we just don’t have that.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.