New Beginnings board unable to give Kennedy High School parents update on graduation review

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Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Mary Hawkins returned her daughter’s salutatorian sash and medal to the New Beginnings board on Saturday.

At a Saturday meeting, board members at the New Beginnings Schools Foundation were not able to offer any new information on when the charter school network will complete a lengthy review of transcripts and graduation eligibility for John F. Kennedy High School’s 2019 graduating class.

The review, which comes in the midst of an investigation into alleged grade-fixing at the Gentilly high school, began months ago. But a consulting firm hired by the network found repeated problems with student records. The review has stretched on into June, nearly a month after Kennedy’s graduation ceremony.

“Right now, we aren’t able to give specific updates on specific students,” board President Raphael Gang said.

Gang could only tell parents that he and employees at the charter school network have been working “sunup to sundown every day” to complete the review, and families would be updated soon.

But he would not commit to a specific timeline. Asked by a parent if the review would be complete by the August, Gang could not answer.

“Please continue to be patient with us,” he said, again stressing that he believed parents would have more information soon.

Meanwhile, the graduating seniors have been left in limbo — unsure if they’ve really graduated — as they’re finalizing college enrollment and financial aid applications.

The lack of news did not sit well with parents who attended the meeting.

Mary Hawkins attended the meeting to return her daughter’s salutatorian sash and medal to the board.

“I want to give this all back because I taught her not to keep anything she didn’t earn,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the network — aware that there were problems with students’ records, as emails leading up to and even after graduation day showed — should never have gone ahead with the May 17 graduation ceremony.

“Half these kids are thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be going to college in August,’ ” Hawkins said, naming some of the colleges listed in the graduation program.  “Why would you do this to them? Why would you humiliate them?”

Hawkins’ daughter expects to attend the University of Southern Mississippi this fall. Hawkins said the 17-year-old is “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Emails obtained by The Lens showed that Kennedy administrators and contractors scrambled to verify whether seniors were eligible to graduate in the weeks and days leading up to the ceremony.

The review, called the Senior Graduation Project, found multiple problems with students records. In one instance, students were given two credits for a one-credit course. Others had incorrect codings for their classes. Some students’ transcripts failed to note they had previously made up coursework in Kennedy’s remedial program, GradPoint. And hours before the graduation, Kennedy Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper wrote to French about her concern over how the valedictorian and salutatorian grade point averages were calculated.

At Saturday’s meeting, Hawkins, the salutatorian’s mother, said it was humiliating for that information to be made public.

“I don’t appreciate my child being publicly shamed by Kennedy, by NBSF or by the school board for that matter,” she said.

Students would not get their diplomas on graduation day or in the following weeks as the review stretched on. The state Department of Education is working with New Beginnings, auditing the review process as it continues.

“It’s too late and our apologies are not enough for that failure,” board member Marlo Lacen said.

Interim CEO named

The New Beginnings board on Saturday also named Kevin George, the current superintendent of St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, as CEO for the upcoming school year.

Former New Beginnings CEO Blouin-Williams resigned in May in the midst of an investigation into alleged grade-fixing at Kennedy. She had been suspended with pay in April.

As The Lens first reported in March, former New Beginnings employee Runell King accused the high school’s administrators of improperly changing students’ grades from failing ot passing. If true, King said, the grade changes could bolster the school’s graduation rate, an important component of its state performance score. King first alerted the network in a February letter. Shortly after, he was suspended and has since been fired.

Blouin-Williams initially denied King’s allegations, saying the network conducted an internal investigation and found nothing to corroborate them. But after The Lens’ first story, the board reversed course, hiring a law firm to investigate further. After investigators presented what board President Raphael Gang called “strong evidence of improper conduct,” five Kennedy administrators lost their jobs late last month.

Blouin-Williams has also been accused of doctoring board meeting minutes to falsely reflect that the board approved a lucrative contract with the Scholars First bus company. The board voted to approve a new bus contract with a different company, A&S, at  Saturday’s meeting.

The board met in a closed executive session on Saturday to discuss CEO candidates and the misconduct investigation. Orleans Parish school district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. sat in on the session.

Lacen said she hopes the new CEO is “going to repair a fractured culture” at the two-school charter network.

“Any children coming up behind my child, I would hope that the new CEO would have their best interests in mind,” Hawkins said.

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