State orders closure of Abramson Charter School
8th August 2011 · 1 Comment
By Christopher Tidmore
Amid allegations of attempted bribery, lack of resources for special needs students, grade inflation, and an incident between two five-year-old students that was “possibly sexual in nature,” the state ordered the closure of Abramson Science and Technology Charter School.
The abrupt termination of the Pelican Educational Foundation’s charter contract to operate the New Orleans East school by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education pending an investigation occurred just days before the school year was scheduled to begin. The BESE decision has launched a firestorm of controversy over the future of charter schools in New Orleans.
Almost three-fourths of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools six years after Hurricane Katrina, and the city has gained national attention for improvements in student achievement test scores and the choice-driven model of educational reform.
However, parents of special-needs students have argued that the Charter system have provided few opportunities for their children, and the alleged corruption at Abramson is emblematic of the problem. Teachers and administrators at that school were, in their view, attempting to cover up that educationally disabled students do not receive the specialized help that they need under the Charter System.
Charter school advocates have called the incidents at Abramson the result of a potentially unscrupulous operator that deserved to be shut down. The very fact that BESE could act to close to close down the Charter operator so quickly shows the flexibility of the Charter model of education. Under the previous public model, they argue, it would have been years before a failing or corrupt school would be forced to close its doors, if ever.
The strength of the current charter design in New Orleans, in fact, “is that failing schools can be closed,” argued the proverbial Godmother of Ed Reform, former Orleans School Board and BESE member Leslie Jacobs. In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Jacobs noted that Charter advocates have called for closures when corruption rears its head, and she went so far as to declare that private and parochial schools that receive vouchers should be denied state money if their students consistently fail state LEAP tests.
“Good schools should be rewarded, and schools that fail to educate should not receive taxpayer money,” Jacob maintained. In an ideal world, money should always follow the child to whatever qualified school the parents choose, from her perspective, yet “with higher amounts for students with special needs.”
Jacobs noted too that the RSD and BESE needed to appropriate a higher sum for special needs student to incentivize schools to provide resources for emotionally, physically, or learning disabled students. The fact that as of right now, the voucher—or charter per student funding amount—is equal on a per student basis, means that charters are provided with an insufficient amount to educate special-needs students.
BESE President Penny Dastugue did not speculate on the global problems of educating special needs students when she pulled the Pelican Foundation’s Charter late Wednesday. She concentrated on the fact that faculty at the New Orleans East school had acted improperly.
As she explained, “I have thoroughly reviewed the findings and documentation of the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) investigation of Abramson. This documentation includes evidence that Abramson has failed to comply with state law, BESE policy, and the Type 5 Charter Contract. This investigation is on-going, because referrals have been made to other state agencies regarding additional allegations involving the school.”
“However, since our investigation has already yielded findings and documentation that indicate a threat to the safety, health and welfare of students at Abramson, I am recommending that BESE terminate and revoke the Charter School Contract with the Board of Directors for Pelican Educational Foundation governing Abramson Science and Technology Charter School pursuant to BESE Bulletin 126, Section 1701(BX1) and in accordance with the paragraph 5.4.2 of the Charter Contract.”
Dastugue’s took action less than half a day after acting State Superintendent Ollie Tyler contacted board members to recommend that they shutter the school.
Tyler referred to a state investigation of bribery amongst other misdeeds at Abramson. Folwell Dunbar, the state’s academic advisor for charter schools, claims to have been approached by an executive of Atlas Texas Construction and Trading where an executive of the company, Inci Akpinar, offered Dunbar $25,000 to help “fix this problem.” Dunbar noted the incident in an interdepartmental memo. It occurred as he was in the midst of an investigation into multiple complaints about the school from a group of whistle-blowing teachers.
In another incident, Teach for America recruit Genevieve Redd claimed she encountered one of her five-year-old kindergarten students in school bathroom in what appeared to be a sexual position with another student who had stripped naked. Redd claims when she brought the situation up with school officials, she reportedly was told to give the child “the benefit of the doubt,” explaining “we all know he is goofy anyway.”
She was told to throw away the page log report she wrote of the incident. Only after discovering the same child in a supply closet did Redd come forward. She was subsequently fired on the basis of “budget cuts,” as then-school Principal Cuneyt Dokmen explained to the young teacher.
While some critics have loudly condemned the Turkish “Gulen Movement” connections of the Charter operator, the BESE closure came at the behest of several other teachers speaking privately to the Board about improprieties at the East NOLA school. In one letter, an educator, whose identity has been redacted, writes, “I taught…at Abramson Science and Technology Charter School this year. In light of the recent investigations, I feel compelled to share my concerns about many of the things I saw occur at Abramson in the past year.”
Special education was the core of the teacher’s complaint to Abramson. “I have several examples of student work and emails with the Special Education teacher that serve as documentation of my concerns about the special education program at Abramson,” she continued. “No student from [my] grades was ever pulled out of my class for special education services, nor did the special education teacher ever come to my room to provide services to any student, nor were laps ever reevaluated. Additionally, whenever I sent students to take a test in the resource room, they turned in tests with identical answers. Even questions that asked for extended response answers or student opinions would be exactly the same for each student.”
“Often, the tests would be written in the special education teacher’s handwriting. When the tests were not written in the teacher’s handwriting it was clear that the students had used a Spanish-English dictionary or an electronic device with a translator, because students often came up with vocabulary words that we had not learned in class.”
The Abramson insider went on to note several examples of alleged lack of focus on students with special needs. “In the beginning of the year I had concerns about a particular student who was in high school. I was given an [Individualized Education Program] for this student, which stated his accommodations; however the IEP was unclear and did not specify things I could do to help the student learn. When I asked the special education teacher to help me develop a plan to help this student be successful she stated, ‘Just give [student name] a D. He isn’t going to get a diploma, but if he gets enough Carnegie credits he will be able to get a certificate. If you think he is trying give him a C.’”
She also noted incidents of grade inflation. “At the end of each grading period I was requested by my special education teacher to raise grades in the JPAMS grading system for students with special needs. When I did not do this, the principal also requested that I change the grades. Furthermore, the principal requested that I adjust the grades for my entire grade class to make them higher.”
This led, in part, she explained, to false college admittances, “Near the end of the year many students who had not previously been accepted to any college began announcing that they had been accepted into North American College. Surprisingly, students who were failing their English and math classes and who would not graduate from Abramson on time were still being accepted to North American College. The principal used these acceptances as proof that…Abramson was successful.” North American College, she also went on to note, is where Cuneyt Dokmen went to work in the fall in a new job.
The whistleblower teacher outlined some discipline horror stories at Abramson where due to “a lack of discipline and behavior management, students were often subjected to unsafe conditions.”
As she explained, “My classroom shared a wall with a computer science class, instructed by [a teacher whose name was redacted on] several occasions throughout the year I felt my whiteboard shake as I was writing on it, because students’ bodies were slammed into it from the other side of the wall. One time when I went into his room to check what was going on, I saw [that teacher] with his computer with his headphones on, as several middle school boys wrestled and shoved each other. Students informed me that [he] frequently called his wife … during their class period.”
“When I was teaching, an emotionally disturbed student got angry at another student who took one of his crayons. I held the student’s arms to keep him from attacking another student and asked the security guard to take him to the office.”
“While I was helping a student with her work, to my surprise, the security guard brought the violent student back to class and released him; She stated that the office would not take him. He ran to the student he had attempted to attack earlier and pushed him on the floor and proceeded to kick and punch him until I was able to pull him off the other student. When their regular teacher returned to the classroom she reported that she had filled out multiple referrals for this student due to his violent behavior. No disciplinary action was taken to prevent the violence from continuing.”
“During state testing, several teachers were supposed to cover the grade classes because they were not testing that week. I covered a ‘grade class with 25 students for three periods, but when it was time for me to teach my elementary class, the principal’s wife, Mrs. Dokmen (a test-prep teacher), came to cover the class. When I returned an hour later, there was no adult in the room. The students were aware that they were completely unsupervised, and were watching an R-rated movie. They reported that Mrs. Dokmen told them she couldn’t watch the movie because of her religion and left the room when they put the movie on.”
Sarah Baird of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a charter advocacy organization, told the Weekly that BESE took the correct action. “If at any time a school is called into question regarding the health, safety and welfare of children, there must be a zero-tolerance policy.”
“While the slow pace at which the issue was addressed was not ideal for positioning students and parents to feel confident in their options for the rapidly-approaching school year,” the Charter advocate continued, “today’s action by BESE reaffirms the state’s commitment to placing the health and safety of students above all else. One of the key differences between charter and traditional schools is the ability to close a charter school, swiftly, if necessary. This is contrast to traditional schools, which can remain open for years despite evidence of failure.”
Baird did not address complaints by special needs parents that the Abramson situation should demonstrate the underservice of their children’s needs; however, the LAPSC exec is in the main stream of school choice advocates when she says that schools should not receive public money if they fail to teach.
Just three weeks ago, in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Leslie Jacobs noted both the charter and voucher movements would lose credibility if the state continued to fund schools that chronically failed. The Educate Now! President observed, for example, that two Orleans parochial schools that received state educational vouchers out-performed the state average, St. Joan of Arc and St. Leo the Great. “Those schools should be commended and encouraged to take on more voucher students,” she explained.
However, the 86 percent and 82 percent, performing at grade level or better, of those two schools was quite a contrast to the five voucher schools that performed worse. Resurrection of Our Lord, Upperroom Bible Church Academy, St. Peter Claver, and Holy Ghost Elementary School each performed between 23 percent to 13 percent of grade level average. “Those schools should not receive any more state money,” Jacobs declared.
“Private or parochial schools that cannot deliver quality should be removed from this program, and we should instead use these funds to expand scholarship opportunities at the higher-performing private schools in New Orleans or to expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students in failing schools in other parts of the state,” she said.
It is the same as charters that fail, like Abramson, she explained. The beauty of the school choice-based systems for both is that schools can be actually denied funding when they have failures.
However, Orleans Parish School Board member Woody Koppel told the Weekly that until the state takes steps to provide “reasonable opportunities” for special needs students, they will “continued to be underserved” and problems in the charter system “will continue to occur.”
Former Orleans Parish Public and charter school teacher Trey Roberts, disagreed, though. While he was the first to observe that there are children with special needs that require special help, often the typical process of sequestering special-needs children ultimately damages them.
And, sometimes, he added, some “emotionally disturbed” special-needs children just need discipline.
As he explained, “Many of the kids are not ADD. They are bad. Many of the kids cannot take 20 minutes of instruction, but I will see them in a technology class playing a computer game for 90 minutes. The system is often abused. In one case, I have had a child say, ‘Mr. Roberts, I want you to sign this because my mama wants a “crazy check.’” In many cases, these children have been excused too much. The teaching of discipline and self-control should be taught before students come to school. It’s not happening.”
Some special needs children do need extra aid, Roberts was quick to add. However, the process of sequestering them from the typical classroom environment only hurts them. “Section 504 of the Louisiana [Educational Code] provides for giving what is ‘reasonable and necessary’ for each student but what does that mean? Teachers are given no guidance,” and the educator’s advice is often ignored by administration officials in classroom situations.
He recounted an incident that a close colleague experienced. “Imagine if you have a student on your roster, and he never shows up. And, then one day, a special ed teacher shows up, asking for his assignments.”
“But, you read in his educational plan that he has social anxiety disorder. He cannot operate in group situations. So he sits in the office for two hours a day…the time of the two classes he would take. Then, you learn he leaves school early every day, at 10:30 to go to his job. Is he a diver in some fish tank, completely alone? No. He works in a bar. You don’t work in a bar if you have a social anxiety disorder. You don’t even drive.”
“The end of the nine weeks comes, and the student, who has never come to class, barely finished any assignments, gets a D, and graduates. Then Central Office comes to you and asks why he only got a ‘D’. You respond that you have never laid eyes on him. He’s lucky he got a ‘D.’”
“I plead with our special education teachers, please don’t weaken our kids legs. Strengthen them, so they can go out in the World. Help them. Give them special attention. Don’t protect them so they can’t function. Our education system says that as a teacher I shouldn’t require these special education students to do very much, and that’s wrong. When you bring up what’s best for the kids, it is usually ignored. What’s best is to actually have them learn.”
Too often, special ed students are not expected to operate in a classroom environment. “That’s the real underlying tension between those that say the charters are not doing enough for Special Ed kids, and those that defend the Charter System,” Roberts maintained.
The Recovery School District has pledged to operate Abramson until another charter operator can be found.
This article was originally published in the August 8, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper