A car parked at Xavier University's Convocation Center in May 2019 for Kennedy High School's graduation ceremony is covered in Kennedy blue and gold "Miss J.F.K Class 2019 Ariel" it reads. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

On May 16, a contractor reviewing John F. Kennedy High School student transcripts sent an email to administrators at the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter school network that runs Kennedy. It was the day before the Gentilly high school’s graduation ceremony.

The email included lists of 15 “pending” graduates and 12 “non-grads.”

“Please tell me asap if I am wrong about any student’s status,” wrote Laney French, who works for TenSquare LLC, a Washington D.C.-based consulting company hired by New Beginnings to manage the network following the suspension of CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, who later resigned.

That email, obtained by The Lens through state public records law, is one of dozens that show how administrators and contractors at the charter network scrambled to audit seniors’ graduation eligibility in the weeks leading up to — and even after — the school’s May 17 graduation. The emails also show rising tension between New Beginnings employees and TenSquare employees as the contractors discovered more and more problems.

The task, dubbed “Senior Graduation Project,” was a multi-faceted audit that required reviewing grades, attendance, transcripts, and state exam scores among other things. The 690-student school had 168 seniors in an official state count taken Feb. 1.

These are necessary steps to determine a student’s graduation eligibility, though many steps, like tallying credits from freshman, sophomore and junior years, can happen earlier.

But the high school’s counselor resigned with two weeks to go in the school year, and contractors found multiple problems throughout students’ records. In one example, French wrote that students had received two credits for a one-credit courses.

The intense review happened amid a grade-inflation investigation — where administrators were accused of improperly changing some students’ grades from failing to passing — as well as the departure of Blouin-Williams and five Kennedy administrators.

Both the charter group and the Orleans Parish school district are investigating the alleged grade-fixing.

”We still have not received a date. We don’t even have anyone we can contact to ask about the situation.”

Asia Stepter, John F. Kennedy High School class of 2019

At the school’s graduation, then-principal Brian Gibson said lots of students had questions about diplomas, which they weren’t given at the Friday ceremony. Gibson — one of the administrators who later lost his job at the network —  told students that their diplomas could be picked up at the school on the following Monday.

At 9 p.m. that night, six hours after graduation, a contract employee told Gibson diplomas couldn’t be issued Monday. “No diplomas will be issued until everything is verified and resolved,” she wrote.

Diplomas weren’t issued the week of May 20 or the week after that. At a New Beginnings board meeting last week, students said they were still waiting for them, while parents begged for more information. At the meeting, board president Raphael Gang said the group was working as hard as it could.

On Monday, Class of 2019 senior Asia Stepter said nothing has changed.

“We still have not received a date,” Stepter wrote in a text message to The Lens. “We don’t even have anyone we can contact to ask about the situation.”

Asked again Tuesday, she said she had no new information.

The emails reveal an intense process that wasn’t always clear and also raises questions about how some students’ credits were confirmed. Less than three weeks before graduation, French and Meghan Turner, another TenSquare employee, were alerting administrators to major outstanding issues. Some transfer students had incomplete transcripts, others had mistakenly received double credit. Later, the contractors held back on acknowledging remedial coursework “until the investigation into the validity of those courses is verified.”

Earlier this month, one student told The Lens she was allowed to make up 10 days of class by taking a test. In a Tuesday email responding to questions from The Lens, Gang did not directly address the student’s claim.

TenSquare did not immediately respond to a request for comment clarifying the attendance policy.

Kennedy is one of three schools the New Beginnings school group ran this year. One, Nelson elementary, has closed for good after several years of F ratings from the state. Kennedy, which has a C rating from the state, had its charter renewed this winter.

A temporary management team

On April 1, New Beginnings suspended CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams with pay and empowered board president Raphael Gang to hire an educational management services. He inked a contract with consulting group TenSquare on April 11.

In mid-April, New Beginnings administrator Lauren Coleman told TenSquare staff that the network’s internal deadline for a graduate list was May 3.

In an April 26 email, Turner told Gibson the team still needed information.

“As you can see below, we are missing several reports needed to identify Seniors’ graduation status and incomplete items.”

Gibson then forwarded the email to his team. “Guys plz give me an update on your parts of this. I need this behind us.”

In early May, one month after the board hired TenSquare, Turner and French identified nine distinct issues at Kennedy that had to be dealt with in order for seniors to graduate. On the same day, May 8, Kennedy Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper sent an all-staff email at 1:32 p.m. titled “URGENT: Senior teachers – grade verification sheets needed by 2pm.”

In a lengthy email, Turner laid out the problems. The school would need to address students with failing grades and others who had incorrect coding for their classes. Some students’ transcripts failed to note they had previously made up coursework in Kennedy’s remedial program, GradPoint. Others were still actively making up coursework.

Some students who transferred to Kennedy mid-way through high school had incomplete transcripts. Other students lacked final grades from previous semesters or were waiting on final grades in the spring semester.

Some were waiting for results from end-of-course exams, French wrote. Students are required to pass three end-of-course exams to graduate in Louisiana. They must pass English, math and either social studies or science. French asked, “Who is the testing coordinator? Who has the difficult task of talking to seniors about their test scores?”

And finally, some students had exceeded the state’s absence limit.

Kennedy’s attendance policy states students can only miss ten days of class a year, and not more than five in one semester. Schools can allow students to makeup “seat time” by attending after-school or on weekends.

”We have concerns about the lack of data for many students and even though we are very late in the game, with graduation happening next week, we must do everything possible to confirm which students have and have not met the requirements.”

May 9 email, Kathy Padian, TenSquare

Turner demanded a count of students who still needed to make up seat time. Kennedy’s policies on makeup seat time aren’t entirely clear.

On May 9, one week before graduation, Kathy Padian — a TenSquare partner who opened the company’s New Orleans office in 2015 — emailed Gibson to explain how senior certification was progressing.

“Due to the sudden departure of your counselor and her apparent lack of completion of many tasks prior to leaving, I asked Meghan and later Delaney French to assist” in certifying seniors for graduation, Padian wrote. “We have concerns about the lack of data for many students and even though we are very late in the game, with graduation happening next week, we must do everything possible to confirm which students have and have not met the requirements.”

That day, Gibson asked the team to focus on transcripts and graduation eligibility for the top 15 students.

On May 14, three days before graduation, Laney French said 95 seniors were eligible to graduate, 30 had not met requirements, and she had 50 yet to verify.

Graduation day

A program from John F. Kennedy High School’s 2019 graduation, which took place amid an investigation into grade inflation at the Gentilly high school. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The school’s blue-and-gold graduation program lists 155 names under the heading “John F. Kennedy High School Class of 2019.”

But at least one student listed among them didn’t graduate that day.

An hour and 20 minutes before the school’s Friday afternoon commencement ceremony, school staff were emailing back and forth about the student. It appears, according to the email, the girl was missing an English III end-of-course test.

“I have confirmed that she took the course with us and is required to take EOC in order to graduate,” Director of IT Devon Matthews wrote.

“I know this isn’t welcome news,” French responded. “I wish it were different.”

It’s unclear if the student was told on graduation day or has been told at all. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, three hours before graduation, Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper wrote to French about her concern over how the valedictorian and salutatorian grade point averages were calculated.

“I don’t know what to advise,” French replied. “Historical grade data is riddled with errors that might be affecting the GPA but I can’t be certain because this is not something I’ve dealt with before.”

French advised waiting until the audit was complete but acknowledged that couldn’t be achieved by 3 p.m. when the ceremony began.

Emails show that within 24 hours of graduation, another student may have learned that he wouldn’t be earning a diploma.

“The student was flagged on our transcript audit for several weeks,” Turner wrote in an email graduation morning to Gibson. “We were told that the parent was aware of the EOC situation.”

Turner said that wouldn’t be fair to nine other students who did not pass an EOC test and can’t participate in graduation. “I would encourage you to be consistent with the policy used for the other students.”

Gibson fought back on the student’s behalf, writing, the “situation brings into question the overall policy regarding testing because he was not afforded every opportunity to sit for the EOC test.”

“We do not agree with this decision and feel that this decision is wrong,” he wrote. “Our administrative team collectively agree that he should be allowed to participate in the ceremony.”

After graduation day

Work on the Senior Graduation Project continued after graduation day.

On May 18, Gibson wrote to contractors asking why administrators had lost access to PowerSchool, Kennedy’s online gradebook.  The records obtained by The Lens did not explain why employees were cut off from the platform.

Students were told to pick up their diplomas on May 20, the Monday after graduation. But that date was pushed back. On that Monday, Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper emailed asking for a projected date transcripts would be completed.

“We want to be able to accurately inform our grads/families about diploma pickup, especially since we have communicated a date change twice,” she wrote.

On May 21, the Tuesday after graduation, students were still awaiting word and the senior transcript team was still fixing problems.

“STILL NOT ADDED TO ALL TRANSCRIPTS,” French wrote, listing GradPoint credits, transfer transcript corrections and updates on class credits for Spanish course.

In an email that day, French wrote, “There are massive inconsistencies with grades and attendance.”

On May 22, Turner asked for a list of students who needed summer remediation or to make up end-of-course tests.

It’s unclear what happened after May 23, the date The Lens requested these records. New Beginnings provided them on June 1 and provided an “updated” response Tuesday.

The emails show, the high school is now auditing its freshmen, sophomores and juniors’ transcripts, too.

On Friday, the Louisiana Department of Education informed Gang it would initiate a review of the school’s policies and practices regarding “credit attainment and graduate completion records.”

In an email Tuesday, Gang wrote, “We are still going through the investigation and will share the results as soon as we have them. We are working as quickly as possible and will bring transparency and accountability to what happened among adults at John F. Kennedy High School. As soon as we have updates on the senior class, including individual transcript reviews, we will provide information to students, families, and the public.”

Board members have told parents the charter group would provide an update at its next meeting, scheduled for June 8.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...