Parents say Bricolage is failing its special education students

Parents of special needs students line up Wednesday outside Bricolage Academy, in the former John McDonogh High School building on Esplanade Avenue, to protest the school’s handling of special education. (Mid-City Messenger)

The parents of students with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, reading and speech delays, and other special needs spoke out Wednesday morning in front of Bricolage Academy on Esplanade Avenue.

About 40 parents signed a petition asking for greater accountability and more transparency from the public charter school, which moved into the renovated John McDonogh High School building for the 2018-19 school year. About a half dozen stood in front of the school last week with sayings such as “Every child matters” and “Our school, our voice.”

Bricolage is a highly rated, open enrollment school, chartered under the Orleans Parish School Board, that currently educates prekindergarten through sixth-grade students. The school’s mission statement: “Bricolage Academy advances educational equity by preparing students from diverse backgrounds to be innovators who change the world.”

“It is time to live up to the promise of Bricolage as a beacon for innovation and inclusion,” said Roby Chavez, whose two sons are Bricolage first-graders with autism. “Many of us have tried to discuss these lingering issues and vital concerns with the administration, without resolution.”

After Wednesday’s protest aired on WDSU-TV, the school’s interim CEO, Carolyn Chandler Louden, issued a statement saying, in part, that she will be meeting with parents this week.

“Although Bricolage has always been 100% in compliance with Special Education requirements in our annual state audit,” Louden stated, “questions remained regarding delivery of services.”

Louden was appointed in December after Josh Densen, the founder of Bricolage Academy, stepped down as CEO, news reports show. The parents are asking for a voice in the selection of a permanent CEO.

The number of students requiring special education resources at Bricolage has grown considerably since it opened in 2013, according to school officials. The parents state that 20 percent of its student population has special needs.

Louden said the school is trying to keep with their educational requirements. “Early this academic year,” Louden stated “Bricolage Academy hired an additional Special Education teacher and four additional paraprofessionals in order to accommodate a significant increase in the enrollment of students requiring Special Education services at our school this year.”

‘Falling through the cracks’

“The stories we are hearing from inside the school are heartbreaking,” Chavez said. “Kids locked in seclusion rooms, students who are years behind their peers academically, parents yanked out of classrooms during the school visit. And, sadly, we know many families who have now decided to just leave the school altogether.”

One such parent is Julie Skjolaas. Her 9-year-old son is in the third grade and is reading at a kindergarten level, she said. A few years ago, she and her husband, concerned over the child’s lack of progress, talked to school officials.

“The school dismissed our concerns with comments like, ‘He’s a boy. He’s young for his class. Some kids just take a little longer,'” Skjolaas said.

After two years without progress, the Skjolaases requested testing. Under Louisiana Department of Education regulations, schools are required to test a child within 60 working days of a request. Skjolaas said it took six months for her son to be tested.

“We were told they did not want to label him,” she said. “We were confused and dumbfounded.”

The results showed dyslexia and qualified him for an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, required under federal law for all special needs students. The school needs to take action on the IEP in 30 days. Skjolaas said it took another six months to set up a meeting to develop the plan.

Bricolage uses the Orton-Gillingham program to teach literacy skills to students with dyslexia. But Skjolaas’ son, despite being three grade levels behind, was only provided with half of the allotted time.

The Skjolaases decided to enroll their son in a private school, refinancing their home to cover the cost.

“Little did we know that we would not only have to uproot our son from the only school he’s every known, but we would have to pay for tuition for an elementary school education,”  she said.

Others related similar stories of being told that their child simply “slipped through the cracks,” a phrase that was echoed by multiple parents at the press conference.

“So while my child was falling through the cracks, her self-esteem and social interactions were suffering,” said Debbie Dahlman, whose voice shook while describing her attempts to get help for her daughter, a second-grader. “She’s now becoming the child who spoke funny to her friends and could not read in class. She’s becoming withdrawn and doesn’t want to participate.”

System-wide complaints

Parent Abby Doyle, whose fifth-grade son was diagnosed with a hearing disability at birth, said she was hesitant to speak publicly about her difficulties working with the school to accommodate her son’s needs.

“I had wanted to supply more information about my child’s situation, but honestly I’m concerned about retaliation,” she said. It was not necessarily Bricolage officials she was concerned about, she said.

“I’m concerned generally, throughout the city, that the charter school network will not be receptive to the children of parents who make waves or complain,” she said.

The decentralized charter system in New Orleans has long been subject to complaints that it fails to enroll and provide adequate services to special education students.

New Orleans schools have been under a federal consent decree since 2015, part of a settlement in a civil rights suit filed by 10 parents of children with disabilities. Select schools are monitored to make sure they are properly identifying, enrolling and educating students with disabilities.

Louden stated the Esplanade Avenue school has hired a special education consultant for “an in-depth analysis of our program and processes so that we could ensure program delivery rose to meet the high standards of general education here at Bricolage.”

The school also promised an audit after Chavez’s complaints in March, according to The Lens, but the results were never released.

The Bricolage parents are working with Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a nonprofit that provides resources to parents wanting to improve the public education system in New Orleans.

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