Delaware Dept. of Justice Finding On Gateway Lab School FOIA Complaint

Last Spring, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act complaint against Gateway Lab School, a Delaware charter school, to the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.  As any regular reader of this blog is aware, I frequently review meeting minutes for charter schools and school districts.  What I saw in the March minutes for Gateway Lab School shocked me.  Not so much from what they did, but the fact our Attorney General’s office released similar opinions on these kind of matters in the seven months prior to this.  I bear no ill will towards Gateway or their board.  I have always commended this charter school for servicing students with disabilities as the bulk of their student population.  I was among the majority who felt the Charter School Accountability Committee’s 2014 recommendation to shut the school down was absolutely ridiculous, especially when that decision was based on standardized test scores.

After I filed the complaint, myself and Gateway went back and forth via email on the complaint.  During that time, I found another similar action by the Gateway board.  While I had some pains submitting the original complaint because of my loyalty for a special needs school, I felt it was important for them to correct this action.  Did they?  And how did the Attorney General’s office rule on my complaint?  Find out below!

Gateway Lab School Website Disappears

Many charter schools in Delaware changed their websites over the summer.  But Gateway Lab School’s website is gone.  A message pops up indicating this domain name expired on 8/24/16 and is pending renewal or deletion.  That can’t be good.  I hope they get something up and running soon.  By Delaware law, they must have a website.

Last Friday, I did an inspection of all the Delaware charter schools to see if they were in compliance with transparency on their website.  Gateway had some issues dealing with posting minutes from their board meetings and financial oversight committees.  Now it looks like there are bigger issues!

Updated about ten minutes later…

On Gateway’s Facebook page, the following announcement was made yesterday:

GatewayFBAnnouncement

An Apology To Gateway Lab School

Yesterday, I wrote an article about the smear campaign at the Delaware Auditor’s office and Kathleen Davies.  In the article, I mentioned reports she had worked on regarding Delaware charter schools.  I wrote that the reports in 2016 dealt with Providence Creek Academy, EastSide Charter School and Gateway Lab School.  Gateway Lab School was an error on my part, and I apologize to the school for that.  I meant to put Prestige Academy.  Out of all the schools investigated for how they submitted their September 30th student counts, EastSide, Prestige, Family Foundations Academy, and Kuumba were all found to have the most egregious errors in that report.  Gateway was vaguely mentioned over something procedural, but nothing serious at all.  So Gateway was NOT a part of any big wrongdoing or heinous financial fraud.  The article has been corrected to reflect this information.

In Today’s Game: Can You Spot The FOIA Violation?

Gateway Lab School, a Delaware charter school that serves a very high population of students with disabilities, held a special board meeting on April 4th, 2016.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a due process mediation.  Can you spot the Delaware FOIA violation?  It’s easy if you try!

Oops! That’s a big one! I’ve already filed the FOIA complaint to the Attorney General’s office. As a gentle reminder to all school boards in Delaware: you can discuss student related matters in executive session if it pertains to an issue, but you can’t vote on it in executive session. You need to come out of executive session and vote on it then. Now you can’t, and shouldn’t, say this is for x student’s due process mediation situation. But I would suggest giving a number for all action items at a board meeting. Many boards do this already. You can just say, as an example, “In the matter of 16-322, may I have a motion to vote on this action item?”, or something along those lines. It wasn’t that long ago that Brandywine School District’s board had the same issue which is causing issues for the district now as part of a lawsuit.

As well, I have also requested an opinion from the same office about public comment at public meetings. I have noticed some Delaware charter schools ask public comment to be submitted up to two weeks in advance before a board meeting. I don’t think that is in the spirit of the law. Any member of the public should have unfettered access to a public meeting and have the ability to give public comment without having to give advance notice.

Sorry Gateway! Don’t mean to call you out but if all of your board members have not received the full training on these matters I would definitely get on that!

Gateway Lab School Saved In Close State BOE Vote No Thanks to Pat Heffernan! @KilroysDelaware @ed_in_de @RCEAPrez @Apl_Jax @ecpaige @nannyfat

As everyone assuredly knows by now, Gateway Lab School was saved from closing at the end of this school year in a 4-3 vote yesterday at the Delaware State Board of Education meeting.  What you may not know is what was said during the discussion prior to the vote.  Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy all but said the public outcry over the school’s possible closure saved the day for them.  More specifically, the amount of comments made from the Delaware General Assembly trying to save the school with a very high population of special needs children.

What shocked me though was board member Patrick Heffernan’s immediate attack on the school.  Half an hour earlier he had voted yes for the renewal of Delaware Academy of Public Safety’s charter renewal.  Questions were raised about the upcoming academic framework all schools will have based on the upcoming Smarter Balanced Assessment.  For this reason, Heffernan voted yes for their charter renewal, despite the fact the school had some academic issues based on the prior DCAS scores.  So why would he not be consistent with Gateway Lab School?

In commenting on the school, Heffernan said “I know we’re seeing some good things going on there now, but I think the information we have in front of us shows that this has not been a very well-run school.”  While not acknowledging the administration and structure for a school of this type would be run very different than a traditional school, Heffernan proceeded to base all his arguments for closure based on comparisons to traditional schools.  Even Mark Murphy publicly stated it would not be fair to do so.

His wife, Debra Heffernan, a State Representative in Delaware, served on the IEP Task Force in Delaware, and she pushed for discussion about standards based IEPs, but nothing came of that out of the task force.  The Heffernans have publicly commented about their own special needs child in the past, so I am very curious why they are judging special education so harshly and are trying to get special needs parents to blindly accept the Common Core State Standards.  Research has shown these standards are not “one size fits all” and that children with special needs do not perform relative to their regular classroom peers on these tests.

While three members of the state board voted no, Heffernan, Melendez, and Board President Dr. Teri Quinn Gray, the majority voted yes, and Gateway is saved.  On the school’s previously titled Save Gateway Lab School, Head of School Catherine Dolan wrote the following:

Dear Gateway Gladiator Parents/Guardians,

Mark Murphy, Secretary of Education, recommended a Conditional Renewal and the State Board voted to support him. We get one year to show major improvement.

Gratefully,

Catherine Dolan – Head of School

While some were confused over what this renewal meant for the school, Executive Director of the State Board of Education commented this morning on a Facebook post:

Actually the action taken today was the renewal of the charter for Gateway, which is a five year renewal, however they were renewed with a condition to meet standards on an alternate academic framework by the end of the 2015-16 school year. If they are not meeting standards at that point then the state would pursue revocation through formal review.

Delaware State Representative Trey Paradee, of the 29th District, wrote the following:

Schools like Gateway and Positive Outcomes fill a very special and necessary niche: to help children who have not been able to find success in a traditional classroom setting. The parents of children who attend these schools are fiercely supportive of them and are grateful that they exist. To judge the students and teachers at these schools by the same standards that are applied to the traditional public schools is ludicrous. Hats off to the teachers who step up to the challenge of teaching at Gateway, Positive Outcomes, and the schools that serve a disproportionate number of disadvantaged children.

Meanwhile, I’m sure Gateway Lab School parents, students and teachers are breathing a collective sigh of relief as their school has been saved.  As the Smarter Balanced Assessment is mere months away, schools in Delaware are all worried about the ramifications this already controversial tests will have on their own academic framework.

Gateway & Reach Try To Save Their Schools @KilroysDelaware @ed_in_de @RCEAPrez @nannyfat #netde #eduDE #Delaware #edchat #savegatewaylab

Last night, several hundred parents, teachers, administrators, legislators and members of the community spoke up about a possible closure for two charter schools in Delaware.  Gateway Lab School and Reach Academy For Girls will have their fate decided on December 18th at the State Board of Education meeting.  Yesterday, people had a chance to give a last plea to the Delaware Charter School Accountability Committee.

Gateway Lab School, with their special needs population of around 60%, has a target on their back over standardized test scores.  They are being compared to a regular school district while one of their counterpart charter schools, with less severely impaired special needs students, is compared to other special needs schools in the state.  This puts Gateway at a very distinct disadvantage.

The jam-packed event, with many parents forced to leave due to the filled room capacity, was met with a snafu from the very beginning.  The event, scheduled to start at 6pm, had a rescheduling at 4pm from the Delaware Department of Education.  Gateway was scheduled to go first.

WDEL covered the event, and you can watch their broadcast here: http://wdel.com/features/charterhearing141210.mp4

Public Comment can still be made to the Delaware DOE until the end of the day on Friday December 12th.

Gateway Lab School Recommended To Close But DE Academy Public Safety & Security Gets A Pass, Something Is Very Wrong Here

In reviewing the decisions made by the Charter School Accountability Committee for Delaware, there is an obvious bias against Gateway Lab School.  Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security (DAPPS), with their special education population of 12.6%, had their charter renewed.

DAPPS was rated Does Not Meet for the past three years under academic proficiency.  Their financial accountability was fail in 2011-2012, does not meet in 201-2013 and fail again in 2013-2014.  Their organizational rating was does not meet for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, but managed to meet for 2013-2014.  For Gateway, they were rated meets in both financial and organizational this year.

Below are the final reports from the Charter School Accountability Committee:

There a few things that stuck out to me.  One is the membership of Charles (Chuck) Taylor on this committee.  They have him as a community member and Former Charter School Leader.  While these are both true, Chuck Taylor is also the President of the Delaware Charter Schools Network Governing Board.  Why would they not list him as such as he holds such a lofty position?  In the DAPSS final report, David Blowman, the Deputy Secretary of the Delaware DOE, is talked about.  “He noted that the Financial Framework section does not meet standard, but stated that is not a concern.”  Yet the school is only at 76% capacity with 363 students out of a maximum enrollment of 420.   For charter schools, if they are not financially viable, then they cannot operate.  But this isn’t a concern, based on a promise they will get their enrollment up for the next school year when several other charter schools will be opening?

For DAPSS, in 2013-2014, their Math proficiency score percentage for students with disabilities was 31.3% and for ELA it was 30.1%.  For Gateway, their Math was 28.3% and ELA was 30.3%.  While DAPSS did only slightly better in Math for students with disabilities, Gateway did slightly better in ELA.  If you are going to judge a whole school for proficiency scores for these types of students, then you need to be consistent across the board, regardless of the population.

For Gateway, they are compared to their home district, which is Red Clay Consolidated School District.  These would be listed as similar schools.  But they are not similar schools with Gateway having such a high population of special education students.  But Positive Outcomes, in Kent County, has their proficiency ratings compared to forty different schools in the area that specialize in learning disabilities and high populations of special education students.  This seems like a very glaring bias against Gateway.  How can they be judged as failing when the very metric they are being measured for is extremely flawed?  I have nothing but the utmost respect for Positive Outcomes, but Gateway should be judged academically the same way Positive Outcomes is.  Would they still be rated as failing if they were held against that correct standard?

To view these two very different pieces of data, go to the following:

http://www.doe.k12.de.us/cms/lib09/DE01922744/Centricity/domain/151/reports/performance%20review%20reports/2013-14%20performance%20framework%20reports/Gateway201314AcademicPFReport.pdf

http://www.doe.k12.de.us/cms/lib09/DE01922744/Centricity/domain/151/reports/performance%20review%20reports/2013-14%20performance%20framework%20reports/POCSRevised1314AcademicPFReport.pdf

There is something fundamentally and morally wrong when a state wants to recommend the closure of a school for special needs children using flawed comparison data.  So then I must ask, what is the true purpose of this decision?  I can guess and theorize as to what that might be, but at the end of the day, none of that guessing will help the students and parents of these children being forced to make hard decisions.  If I were these parents, I would be filing an Office of Civil Rights violation against the Delaware Department of Education immediately.

Charter schools in Delaware discriminate all the time with enrollment preferences and denial of special education services.  But when a charter school gets it right, they are given a knife in the back.  There is no justice.