Promoted, but not helped: How a New Orleans student was able to graduate despite several red flags

By Jessica Williams,

Dennis Lewis remembers the moment clearly. It was the beginning of the school year, and he was trying to convince his wife that their 18-year-old wasn’t getting the services she needed from her public high school in New Orleans.

He pulled out a handful of coins from his pocket, and asked his daughter how much money he was holding.

“Sure enough, she couldn’t count it,” he recalled.

The look on his wife’s face — who would die from an aneurysm just three days later — was devastating.

Denesha Gray had just started the 12th grade. A few months later, still unable to perform basic addition, she beamed as she walked across the stage and received her diploma from McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

Gray, who struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, had been allowed to progress to this point despite several red flags. She couldn’t count money, and she read only as well as a second grader. The system also failed to provide her with the type of tailored education program that her diagnoses mandated until the very end of her high school career.

Gray’s story recalls a sad episode that was once held up as Exhibit A in the failure of New Orleans’ public schools — the story of Bridget Green, who, despite being her school’s valedictorian in 2003, could not pass the state’s graduate exit exam of basic skills.

But Gray graduated in 2018, after being educated almost exclusively in a school system that was held up after Hurricane Katrina as a laboratory for education reform.

In a brief interview, Gray said she was aware she was fumbling her way to the finish line.

“I wasn’t getting the proper help, and I was like, ‘I’m ready to graduate,’ ” said Gray, who now lives in Houston and works as a home health aide. “That’s just how I felt.”

Although students’ test scores across the city have seen impressive gains amid the post-Katrina reforms, Gray’s experience highlights two flaws in the remade system.

First, an untold number of students — Gray among them — haven’t received the sort of individualized attention their learning disabilities merit under the law. That problem has been compounded by a decision by Louisiana educators to rely on social promotion to bring the high school dropout rate under control.

“She has a civil right to ensure that she is educated, and clearly that didn’t happen,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. “And it’s like, where did the breakdown occur? Is it because no one told the father about his rights? Who dropped the ball?”

Lewis and his since-deceased wife of 30 years, Belva Gray-Lewis, raised Gray and her siblings in the tawny brick low-rises of the old St. Bernard public housing complex.

Gray attended kindergarten at St. Raymond Elementary, run by a nearby Catholic parish whose nuns would pass out Christmas turkeys to St. Bernard residents.

Teachers didn’t notice anything amiss with Gray until the first grade, after Hurricane Katrina swept the family out of the housing development and into an apartment in Houston. “She couldn’t (read) directions,” Lewis said.

That year at Thomas Gray Elementary, a highly rated public school in Houston, Gray was steered into a program for struggling readers, according to records reviewed with the family’s permission.

While in Houston, Gray did regular exercises on a computer and was tutored individually each day. Doctors diagnosed her with ADHD and prescribed medication. At the end of the school year, teachers opted to hold Gray back, a strategy her father endorsed.

In 2010, when Gray was midway through the fourth grade, the family returned to New Orleans and enrolled Gray at Mary D. Coghill Elementary, a school in Gentilly run at the time by the state-run Recovery School District, responsible for many of the sweeping changes in New Orleans’ public education system.

The school was on “academic watch” — the next-to-lowest rung on the state’s accountability ladder.

At Coghill, teachers gave Gray more time on tests than other students because of her ADHD diagnosis. At times, they made her place her finger on a troublesome word and sound out each syllable.

“Whatever I could do that would make things easier, and break something down for my students, that’s what I would try,” said Deidre Prince-Reed, who taught Gray reading at Coghill in the eighth grade.

Yet Gray still failed the test Louisiana’s students were required to pass before being admitted to high school. She was sent to a remedial ninth grade program before being cleared to start her sophomore year at McDonogh 35.

That was the year Lewis — worried his daughter was falling far behind — said he began to repeatedly asking that she receive more help. His pleas had little effect.

When she got to McDonogh 35, Gray again failed the state’s end-of-course exams for high schoolers.

Her mother died a month or so into Gray’s senior year. Not long afterward, Gray was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Under rules that were in place until 2014, Gray’s high school exam scores would have barred her from graduating. But by the time she was a senior, state officials had begun to allow students who required special education services to receive diplomas even if they couldn’t pass the test.

Gray got those services only in her final year, and Lewis believes the intervention was mainly aimed at allowing school officials to wash their hands of his daughter and let her graduate.

Educators gave Gray the eleventh-hour special services after an evaluation during her senior year showed her reading skills on par with those of a 7-year-old and her math skills were akin to those of a 5-year-old.

To improve her verbal abilities, teachers were instructed to develop word games that helped Gray tie mental images to words she didn’t understand.

To boost her math skills, teachers were instructed to “rigorously and consistently” review multiplication tables and solve problems aloud for her initially.

The intervention lasted six months. When it was over, school officials gave Gray a diploma and encouraged her to take a literacy class after the school year ended. She didn’t.

Lewis said the special services should have come far earlier. Letting Gray graduate didn’t do her any favors, in his view.

“She’s uneducated, and y’all still gave her a piece of paper to say, ‘Move on,’ ” said Lewis. “When she was in the eighth grade, things should have took place then. I don’t know what conditions, or higher learning skills my kid would (have), had she gotten that education.”

504 versus IEP

The relatively modest help Gray received throughout most of her time in school and the more intense intervention she got in her senior year are outlined in two separate portions of federal law.

Educators calls the first category of remedies “504 plans,” after the federal law that mandates them, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A typical 504 plan might give a child extra time to complete a test to help curb distractions caused by some forms of ADHD.

But when a child’s problems are too severe for those fixes, the law says the child should receive an “individualized education plan.” An IEP might call for a different and shorter test designed with a child’s short attention span in mind.

Generally, it’s more time-consuming and expensive to create such individualized plans for students.

“The IEP gives you specialized instructions to modify the curriculum in way where a child can access it,” said Selene Almazan, of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a Maryland-based advocacy organization for parents of children with disabilities. “Compared to a 504 plan, which gives you accommodations to access the traditional curriculum but doesn’t change the curriculum in any way.”

As Gray was attending classes, New Orleans’ schools — both charters and direct-run — were being rapped for confusing the two.

By 2008, charter and traditional schools in the city had authorized “an astonishing number of 504 plans” when compared with other places, according to a survey of 23 schools that year by Educational Support Systems Inc. Evaluators estimated that at least a third of students assigned those plans would have been better served with IEPs.

State and federal data support the finding that there was a disproportionate number of 504 plans in New Orleans schools at the time.

Roughly 8% of the almost 42,000 public school students in New Orleans were on 504 plans in 2011, the earliest complete year available. That’s compared with the 2% in Caddo Parish and the 3% in East Baton Rouge Parish, which have similar demographics.

In Atlanta, and in Houston’s Aldine district, where Gray attended school from 2005 to 2010, less than 1% of students were on 504 plans that year.

Meanwhile, 10 families sued the Louisiana Education Department in 2010, claiming that more than a dozen public schools — Gray’s Coghill among them — were refusing to write IEPs for kids who needed them or were “counseling” special education students away from their campuses.

“The system for providing special education in New Orleans is thoroughly broken,” wrote attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented an estimated 4,000 New Orleans families in the class-action suit.

The state and the aggrieved parents settled the lawsuit over IEPs four years later, with state officials agreeing to train schools on their legal responsibilities and to make other fixes. An independent expert was tapped to monitor their progress.

The schools under the eye of that monitor, Fluency Plus, have improved with time. Still, as late as last year, experts found incomplete IEPs for students at some schools, and faulted one school, Sophie B. Wright Charter, for not considering extra help for one student who had long had a 504 plan but had nonetheless repeatedly failed classes.

Liz Marcell Williams, of the Center for Resilience, a therapeutic day program for students with mental health disorders, said the city’s schools faced new challenges when the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital closed after Katrina and other resources for mentally ill students dwindled.

“We have lacked (comprehensive services) for so long that we no longer have a good sense of what interventions are appropriate for children,” she said. “We are off, in terms of the level of need and the services that are being provided.”

Patrick Dobard, who oversaw most New Orleans schools during six years at the helm of the Recovery School District, said RSD officials noticed that schools like Coghill often had “a significantly higher percentage” of special-needs students than some others. So they created centralized offices for enrollment and expulsion, to ensure no charter school was turning away difficult kids.

Dobard believes the reforms have achieved more equity among schools, but educating special-needs kids is still challenging.

Williams’ program aims to help students who struggle with bipolar disorder and other serious issues and have fallen far behind in regular classrooms.

But her school was not launched until 2015, after Gray had already enrolled at McDonogh 35. And this school year will be the first year that the Center for Resilience will accept high school students.

The data shows that Orleans Parish educators have begun providing more students with IEPs. The share of kids getting an IEP has jumped by 23% from 2011 to 2017, with nearly 1 in 8 kids receiving one now.

Retention seen as detrimental

Lewis’ view that holding his daughter back might have helped her overcome her learning deficits runs counter to recent state policy on retention.

Since 1989, the state’s educators have relied on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program or similar tests to tell them if students are ready for the next level.

Older students had long been barred from graduating if they failed to pass the reading, math, social studies and science exams. And, after 1999, fourth and eighth graders who couldn’t pass the LEAP were not allowed to advance.

Supporters said the move would end the social promotion of unprepared students to high school and, eventually, to the workforce.

“Retaining the child is not damaging to the child who cannot read,” said former state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Glenny Lee Buquet in 2000 to New Orleans parents who protested the change as draconian. “The damage has already been done.”

But concerns remained that students would become frustrated by failure and give up on school altogether. Those concerns were stoked further when national reports in the early 2000s highlighted Louisiana’s sky-high dropout rates.

Lawmakers and some educators began to favor making it easier to move on to the next grade as a cure. A less-rigorous career-diploma track for eighth graders who failed LEAP was created in 2009.

Then, five years later, lawmakers eased the path to a diploma for kids with issues like autism and ADHD. Those students were required only to have an IEP and demonstrate progress toward a goal. They did not have to pass a Graduate Exit Exam or an end-of-course exam.

Whether or not those changes made the difference, the grim dropout and graduation numbers started improving. The dropout rate for students in seventh through 12th grades fell from 3.5% in 2011 to 2.7% six years later, a drop of nearly a quarter. Graduation rates shot up from 67% in 2009 to 81% in 2018, the year Gray finished.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students held back in a given year fell from 7% in 2010 to about 4% in 2018.

The rosier figures gave educators more than just bragging rights. A high school’s graduation rate was roughly a quarter of its performance score in 2018. For charter schools, a low graduation rate could mean the difference between survival and state-mandated closure.

There’s a temptation to let kids graduate whether or not they’ve earned it, as illustrated by the recent scandal at John F. Kennedy High School — where an investigation found that about half of the seniors who received diplomas were actually ineligible to graduate. The former Orleans Parish School Board, now called NOLA Public Schools, also rapped a Coghill board member this month for telling teachers to grant only passing grades to students.

Yet another investigation found administrators changed grades to let five Helen Cox High School seniors graduate from the Jefferson Parish campus.

Gray was technically eligible, thanks to the IEP she got in her final months of high school.

Looking ahead

The flood of new diplomas aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if students lack the skills to excel in the workforce, said Nahliah Webber, of the Orleans Public Education Network, a parents advocacy group.

“You are graduating, but into what? Any school can have a high graduation rate,” she said. “When we don’t make sure that a (child’s) special education experience is high-quality, we are handicapping them for life.”

Before Katrina, Green, the would-be valedictorian who had to take the state exam six times before passing, was the poster child for the system’s failure.

Green was temporarily retained because she could not pass. Gray, on the other hand, could not pass but was never retained. Stories like Gray’s show how the metrics that educators focus on can have a profound influence on outcomes, Webber said.

Though they gave her a diploma, McDonogh 35 officials seemed to recognize that six months of in-depth help could not make up for years of gaps in Gray’s education. So they instructed Gray to take adult literacy classes after she graduated.

But there was no requirement that she do so, and she never showed up. Instead, Gray moved to Houston to live with her sister, Lewis’ eldest daughter, Ashley Lewis Kinchen.

Kinchen said in a recent interview that she has encouraged her sister to enroll in community college, without success.

That’s not surprising, according to Rhim, of the national special education association.

“There’s the safeguards of the system, but then they come into contact with the reality of a teenager, who says, ‘I did what I was supposed to do, I showed up and y’all were supposed to educate me, and now I want to go on with my life,’ ” Rhim said.

Coghill officials declined to comment on Gray’s situation. But the school’s attorney, Michelle Craig, noted that a recent NOLA Public Schools evaluation found the school “completely in compliance” with local and state special education rules.

“We can confirm that we have implemented processes that ensure that all students, including those students with exceptionalities, are receiving the specialized care, the services and the education that they are entitled to receive,” Craig said.

NOLA Public Schools also would not comment. But letters Lewis provided show its superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., met with him about his daughter in 2017. The two men are not related.

“He admitted to me, on two separate occasions, that the system failed my kid,” Dennis Lewis said.

In January, months after a reporter began asking questions about the Lewis family’s experience, NOLA Public Schools announced it would bankroll the expansion of Williams’ therapeutic day program. It said in March that it is laying the foundation to better identify and serve students with special needs.

And officials announced in December that McDonogh 35, a D-rated school long directly managed by NOLA Public Schools, will be run this school year by the high-performing Inspire NOLA charter network.

None of those changes will help Gray. She said in a recent interview she hasn’t given up on the idea of college entirely, but she remains frustrated.

“I really wanted to go to a big college like Spelman (in Atlanta),” she said. “But then I was like, ‘You know you not getting in Spelman. The school don’t want to help you. … It’s like you have to go to community college and work your way up, because they didn’t give you what you needed.”

Lewis said the help his daughter did get was too little and too late.

“When they recognized that this kid was a special-needs kid, they said, ‘To heck with it; this is what we are going to do.’ They made a decision to graduate her,” he said.

Gray recently found work with a home health care organization. In her previous job, Lewis recalled, she fretted about how years of gaps in her education would affect her performance.

“Now, my daughter is (19) years old,” he said. “She tells me, ‘Dad. I’m about go to work, right now at Walmart, but I’m not going to ever tell the people to put me on the cash register.’ ”


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