John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue in Gentilly. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. on Thursday blasted John F. Kennedy High School and the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Kennedy, amid a grade-fixing scandal and investigations that have rocked students at the Gentilly high school. Lewis called for a criminal investigation into the school and said that the district will conduct a student record audit of every Orleans Parish school district high school.

“First and foremost, on behalf of the district, I would like to apologize,” Lewis said, as he addressed Orleans Parish School Board members and the public at the board’s monthly meeting Thursday evening.

Lewis’ remarks came a week after it was revealed that nearly half of the students in the school’s 2019 graduating class were not eligible for graduation due in part to staff “malfeasance,” New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang told The Lens last week. The announcement came more than a month after the school’s May 17 graduation ceremony.

“Due to the careless and reckless actions of the adults you trusted at JFK, you should be celebrating your senior graduation this month, but instead, you have been forced to question the certainty of your future,” he said, calling the incident “shameful and intolerable.”

Earlier this month, Lewis warned that the district may revoke the school’s charter over the alleged grade inflation. This week, the district expanded the warning issued to New Beginnings. Under the terms of the new warning letter, the charter group will required to provide seniors — now forced to attend summer school to graduate — with weekly status updates, hold parent meetings, and set plans for any student who doesn’t meet requirements this summer. Additionally, Lewis said New Beginnings must audit all of its students’ transcripts to see if they’ve met requirements.

Lewis also announced he had sent a letter to State Inspector General Stephen B. Street, Jr. asking him “to conduct his own independent investigation into this matter to assess if any criminal wrongdoing has occurred.”

In the letter to the IG, Lewis also wrote, “It is my understanding that members of your office have been on site at JFK.”

Then, he made an announcement with citywide implications — the district will expand the student record audit to all high schools in the city.

“We cannot allow this travesty to happen again,” Lewis said. “We will audit student records at every high school, working with experts in the field to help us design high school quality auditing tools.”

The senior class record review at Kennedy 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.

The charter group hired a law firm to investigate and placed CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams on paid leave. She later resigned. The district is also investigating grade-fixing and allegations that Blouin-Williams doctored board minutes and the board violated its own policies regarding contract approval.

Summer school started this week

Last week, New Beginnings Schools Foundations board president Raphael Gang announced that nearly half of Kennedy’s 177 seniors were not eligible to graduate. Of the 87 seniors who are missing credits or exams, 69 were allowed to walk in bright blue and gold gowns at graduation mid-May, only to find out last week they had more work to do.

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.

The network set up a summer school but it’s likely that 24 students will need to re-enroll at Kennedy this fall to complete requirements, Gang said last week.

In a statement Thursday Gang said New Beginnings is serving nearly 60 students in summer school, which began Monday.

“We continue to reach out to families (including with home visits) to ensure we can support students on the path to diplomas, whether that is taking summer school, enrolling next year, or taking a required assessment,” he wrote in an email. “We’re reporting our weekly progress, including summer school student attendance, academic progress, and support provided to students as requested in the letter.”

Gang also announced new CEO Kevin George had hired Harold Clay to lead the high school.

At the board meeting, Lewis promised Kennedy would be open this fall.

“Regardless of the outcomes of this investigation, I want to assure the JFK community that JFK will remain open this coming school year, and our priority is to ensure continuity and stability for all families currently enrolled.”

The charter network will hold a parent meeting for Pierre A. Capdau Charter School families on July 10 at 6 p.m., Gang said. A meeting for Kennedy parents will be held July 11 at 6 p.m. Both meetings were required by the district. Gang said he will provide an update the week of July 15.

Lewis said the district is still investigating the allegations. “I expect to give a report of our findings and recommended actions later this summer.”

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...