Almost half of John F. Kennedy High School’s class of 2019 seniors were not eligible to graduate, even though many had previously been told that they had completed high school, according to the results of a transcript-review released Friday by the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter network that oversees the Gentilly high school.
The announcement comes in the midst of ongoing investigations into alleged grade-fixing at the school. Since those investigations were opened, New Beginnings’ CEO was suspended and then resigned. And at least five administrators have lost their jobs.
Earlier this month, Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. told the New Beginnings governing board in a letter that the district is considering revoking Kennedy’s charter due to the grade-changing allegations.
“I am deeply troubled by the findings which have been shared regarding graduation eligibility at John F Kennedy High School,” Lewis was quoted as saying in part of an Orleans Parish School Board statement posted online Friday. “The students and families impacted were underserved and misled by those they trusted with their education, and the outcome is both heartbreaking and completely unacceptable. OPSB will hold the New Beginnings Schools Foundation accountable for these egregious acts, and my team will work to ensure students quickly receive the support they need to complete their requirements.”
The Orleans Parish School Board has not initiated revocation proceedings “at this time,” the statement said, and its investigation is ongoing.
The New Beginnings network revealed on Friday that at least eight students’ grades had been improperly changed. That number could grow after another ongoing investigation — commissioned by the charter school network’s board — is completed.
In total, 87 students of the 177-student class were not eligible for a diploma or certificate of completion. Many of them had been led to believe they had, in fact, completed high school. Sixty-nine of the 87 had been allowed to walk at the school’s May 17 graduation ceremony.
“The 87 students that were missing, what we found in our investigation was that students were missing a variety of things. Students had not successfully completed courses,” New Beginnings Board President Raphael Gang said in a Friday interview. “Students had not passed end of course exams. And students had some things missing in their transcripts.”
Asked how that could have happened, Gang said the network found “clear instances of malfeasance” and “lack of care” by employees.
“Adults misled students and families and failed to accurately track student progress,” he said.
Some of the students who have been found ineligible for graduation will be able to complete their coursework this summer. Fifty-nine of the 87 students need to earn between one-half and two credits to complete high school, according to a fact sheet provided by the network.
Gang said the network is setting up a second summer school. But he said he believes 24 students will have to return to the school in the fall.
The school has been contacting students and their families over the past two days to inform them of their status, though Gang could not immediately say how many had been successfully contacted.
With the review of the class of 2019 complete, the network is planning to conduct a similar review of younger students’ records, Gang said. He said the network is not currently planning on conducting a similar review of past graduating classes.
Grade-fixing allegations preceded transcript review
The senior class record review came in the midst of a series of scandals at the network. In March, The Lens reported on a former employees’ allegations that several students’ Algebra grades had been improperly changed from failing to passing. The employee, Runell King, had been suspended and fired after informing administrators of his suspicions.
Improperly changing grades could impact the school’s graduation rate, an important component of its state performance score. Kennedy was most recently graded an F based on state standardized test performance alone. But its graduation rate score was 84.9, a B. Overall, it was rated a C.
Then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams said at the time that an internal investigation had found nothing to corroborate King’s allegations. But in early April, after The Lens published the story, the board hired law firm Adams & Reese to conduct an independent investigation and suspended Blouin-Williams with pay. Blouin-Williams resigned in early May.
The law firm was also tasked with investigating evidence, uncovered by WWL-TV, that Blouin-Williams may have doctored board minutes to falsely reflect a vote to approve a lucrative bus contract.
At least five Kennedy administrators, including Principal Brian Gibson, have lost their jobs as a result of the investigation. It’s unclear if more have left the network or soon will. Gang said he could not answer any specific questions about employee wrongdoing while the investigation is ongoing.
A warning letter from the district from earlier this month said there were two grade-fixing complaints: King’s, which involved a group of students in an Algebra III class, and another, reported after the investigation began.
Gang said the eight improper grade changes that have been confirmed by the network involved Kennedy’s remedial program, GradPoint, a program that the network is no longer using. He could not provide further details, citing student privacy laws and the ongoing investigation.
“There are issues we discovered in the process of our investigation that go well beyond GradPoint,” Gang said.
Gang declined to say if it had been determined that King’s firing was retaliatory, again pointing to the continuing investigation. But the network is taking steps to better protect whistleblowers in the future.
“We are planning to have a dedicated hotline, email that we are going to create where any person who has any suspicions of wrongdoing can reach out directly to the board,” he said.
King could not be reached for comment.
Gang said more questions would be answered when the law firm completes its work. He said he could not provide a firm date for that.
“We believe in transparency, but we also believe that the point of this process is to make sure students and parents have the right information,” he said.
Work continued well after graduation day, leaving students uncertain
Following Blouin-Williams’ suspension, the New Beginnings board hired an outside consulting firm, TenSquare LLC, to manage the network in April. Emails obtained by The Lens showed that TenSquare employees soon found irregularities in student records that could affect graduating seniors, and began a review of the entire class.
The review ramped up in the weeks leading to graduation day, but it was not completed prior to the ceremony, stretching on until this week. The state Department of Education opened its own review into the network’s graduation and student assessment processes last month. Department spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said that review is complete and will soon be made public.
In the meantime, students — facing college enrollment and financial aid application deadlines — were left in limbo.
Asia Stepter, who was part of the 2019 class, found out on Thursday that she was one of the 90 students who was eligible for graduation, she told The Lens in a Friday phone interview.
“I graduated. They gave me my diploma and transcript,” she said.
Stepter planned on attending North Carolina A&T State University, but she was unable to complete her enrollment on time because the school had not yet confirmed she had graduated. She said she still may be able to enroll there but is now likely going to be attending Louisiana State University for her first two years.
“I feel better about myself but I feel bad for the other students” who are finding out they did not complete high school. Told that 87 students were on that list, she responded, “Oh my God. That’s bad.”
Other students are likely facing similar problems with college enrollment or employmenr plans. Gang said the school has been working with families, as well as colleges and prospective employers, on individual plans that will least disrupt students’ lives.
“I think words can’t really describe how sorry the board is that families are being forced to pay for mistakes that adults made,” Gang said. “It is our responsibility as a school to ensure that our kids have a quality education every day, and we have to do better.”
This story has been updated with additional quotes and details.