Ten days after their graduation ceremony, anxious John F. Kennedy High School seniors — still waiting for their high school transcripts — showed up to their charter network’s board meeting Tuesday, hoping for answers amid an investigation into grade inflation at the Gentilly high school. Several students said they need the transcripts as proof of graduation before enrolling in college or finalizing financial aid.
Board President Raphael Gang said he wasn’t aware of the problem with the transcripts. But late in the meeting, he said there may be “implications” for some seniors as a result of the grade-fixing investigation.
Senior Ta’Janique Alphonse, clad in Kennedy blue and gold, waited in the hallway for an hour and a half with at least 25 other alumni, parents and students as the board discussed the investigation behind the library’s doors guarded by armed security guards.
Alphonse wants to attend Xavier University this fall. Her mother, LaToya Banks, said they are waiting for her transcript.
“I’m very upset,” she said. “I think this is very unprofessional.”
The students have endured a tumultuous spring. Months before graduation, students’ grades were called into question by a former employee who said he had evidence that administrators had turned failing grades into passing grades. The New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which runs Kennedy, began an investigation. So did the Orleans Parish School Board.
Then, on May 7, the network’s CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams resigned. On Friday, the network told parents five Kennedy staff members were no longer employed, saying in a letter that investigators had presented “strong evidence of improper conduct.”
The letter also alluded to potential impacts on students, saying that the network was “still going through the records of each of our students in detail.”
Waiting in the hallway with Alphonse on Tuesday, senior Asia Stepter said she can’t get proof of her graduation and described a scramble in the weeks leading up to the ceremony.
“They had people taking tests the day before graduation,” she said.
Another senior described a similar scene.
“It’s falling back on us,” Semaj Allen said. “I just want to come out with a diploma.”
The 18-year-olds said they were instructed to come in the week after graduation to pick up their diplomas. When they did, Alphonse said they were told they weren’t ready.
Asked about transcript delays, New Beginnings board chair Raphael Gang said he hadn’t heard of the issue, but told any families experiencing the problem to get in touch with the network.
The Orleans Parish school district is continuing to investigate, spokeswoman Tania Dall confirmed. Two district employees, Dina Hasiotis and Kelli Peterson were at the meeting Tuesday.
“We acknowledge and recognize the frustration students and families are experiencing given the recent information shared by the New Beginnings Schools Foundation (NBSF) board,” Dall wrote in an emailed statement after Tuesday’s meeting. “At this time, our investigation into NBSF remains ongoing. We have communicated to the board of the NBSF that they must quickly and accurately assess the extent to which any wrongdoing has impacted graduating seniors and to immediately put a plan in place to support students in meeting any unmet requirements.”
The New Beginnings board met with lawyers for an hour and a half while parents, employees and Kennedy alumni — from decades ago and 2019 alike — stood in the hallways of Pierre A. Capdau Charter School waiting for an invitation to re-enter the board meeting.
Among those waiting was Dory Tarver, an employment lawyer for Runell King. As The Lens reported, King, a former New Beginnings employee, reported the grade changes as suspicious earlier this year. He was suspended from his job and fired soon after. At the time, administrators — including Blouin-Williams — said an internal investigation did not find any evidence to support his allegations.
The network, however, reversed course after the allegations went public in late March, soon hiring law firm Adams and Reese to perform an independent investigation.
Tarver said drawing any conclusions about King’s standing from Friday’s announcement that five staff members were “no longer employees” with the network would be “speculative.” She said she still hopes to see the board’s investigation.
“I would hope they would make it open to Dr. King at least, if not the public,” she said Tuesday.
Gang read a statement after the public was invited back in to the meeting.
“Our investigation into the malfeasance at John F. Kennedy High School is continuing, and we are pursuing all the implications of that investigation,” he said.
“We are also determining whether there are implications for any students in the graduating class of seniors,” Gang said. “We don’t have all the answers yet, and our team is working as fast as possible to get them.”
“It is our commitment to keep students, families and the community up to date with what we know, when we know it,” he said.
“We want to express our deepest apologies to every student and family at John F. Kennedy High School,” he said. “We are frustrated that our students and families have been put in this situation and we are determined to make it right as soon as possible.”
“I already have dorm fees that have been paid and we don’t even have a transcript,” one parent told the board during public comment. “We go to orientation Thursday. The college needs a transcript.”
Brian Gibson, the school’s former principal, one of the five administrators who lost their jobs, also spoke. He said no one from Adams and Reese, the law firm conducting the investigation, spoke with his administration.
“I want you to be extremely specific about the things I have done,” he said.
A few minutes later, the board voted unanimously to ratify personnel decisions that included Gibson and four other employees no longer working at the school. After the meeting, Gang would not clarify whether they had been fired or resigned due to legal reasons.
The charter board voted to add three new board members, Michael Hubbard, Kendra Norwood and Brianna Spruille White to the board prior to the executive session so they could get up to speed on the investigation. White was the only new member present.
Gang said the board will update families and the public at a board meeting on June 8.