A program from John F. Kennedy High School's 2019 graduation. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

A Louisiana Department of Education review released Tuesday found that John F. Kennedy High School inappropriately used credit recovery courses, offered classes that didn’t meet state standards and found problems with how the school was educating students with special needs.

The review came out one day after a 17-year-old student’s mother sued the school, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state board of education over widespread transcript problems with the 2019 Kennedy senior class. Roughly half of those were found to be ineligible for a diploma, according to a review that was released more than a month after their graduation ceremony.

At their May commencement, 155 students were listed in the program. The state found 85 of those students were eligible for diplomas, but 70 students lacked one or more graduation requirements.

The state’s review covered a range of issues, from poorly written special education plans for students to a general lack of “appropriate foundational skills courses” at the Gentilly high school.

In the upcoming year, the report stated, Kennedy will be labeled “Tier III – High Risk for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Monitoring” and state department staff will monitor the school on-site.

The state isn’t the only agency reviewing the school. After a former employee went public with allegations of artificial grade-inflation in March, Kennedy’s operator, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, launched its own investigation and placed then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams on paid leave. She later resigned.

The Orleans Parish school district is investigating a number of issues at the charter network as well. The district authorizes New Beginnings’ two charter schools.

The district “has received the Louisiana Department’s findings and continues to review information as it becomes available” pertaining to the school and the New Beginnings network, a statement attributed to the Orleans Parish School Board said.

“As authorizer, the District remains committed to doing everything possible within its legal authority to hold school operators accountable for compliance with all academic requirements that have been established to ensure student success,” the statement said.

New Beginnings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Credit recovery program used improperly

The state found Kennedy had inappropriately used credit recovery programs — intended to allow students to redo coursework in classes they have failed — by enrolling students in remediation for classes they had never taken.

“Credit recovery is an instructional program for courses students have already failed,” the review stated, “yet several NBSF students were enrolled in the credit recovery program for classes they had never taken.”

The school used a software program called GradPoint for that coursework.

The state’s findings come as no surprise to Darnette Daniels, who learned a few weeks ago her daughter wouldn’t earn a diploma after completing GradPoint classes at the behest of a counselor to graduate a year early. Daniels has since filed a lawsuit against the school.

”That was the worst feeling ever ever ever as a parent.”

Darnette Daniels, Kennedy parent

“My child cried,” Daniels said of the day they found out. “That was the worst feeling ever ever ever as a parent.”

Daniels said her daughter was approached by a school counselor earlier this year to see if she wanted to graduate early. “My daughter didn’t agree to it at first.”

But eventually, she did, Daniels said. She recalled the counselor explaining her daughter could continue taking her regular junior-year classes at school during the day and then take additional GradPoint classes from home after school.

Daniels said her daughter would get up early, go to school all day, come home and relax a bit before getting back on her computer every night and working until midnight or 1 a.m.

She was supposed to graduate in May. But two days before graduation, during a scramble to confirm students’ eligibility, the family was told that none of the GradPoint classes would count because they were not completed in the presence of a certified teacher. Daniels said now her daughter feels helpless and angry.

In an interview last month, New Beginnings Board President Raphael Gang acknowledged that some students were “taking GradPoint classes as their first course,” rather than using it only for grade recovery.

Asked if that was how the program was supposed to be used, Gang said, “The program is capable of doing it that way. The program was not being properly used to do it that way.”

Gang said the network would no longer use the GradPoint software program.

“We are shifting away from using the GradPoint system, which I think did not provide the controls necessary that we think is a top of a program that provides those kinds of services to students,” he said. “We made the decision to switch off of GradPoint because we feel there are better systems that are more aligned to the standards, provide our students with better quality and also allow us to monitor their progress more effectively.”

“The program is capable of doing it that way. The program was not being properly used to do it that way.”

Raphael Gang, New Beginnings board president

The network must submit a list of the credit recovery programs it will use in the 2019-2020 school year by Aug. 31.

The state also recommended New Beginnings limit the number of credits students can earn through recovery programs to six. It’s unclear how many credits individual students had earned through the program, but overall, the state found 81 class of 2019 seniors had participated in 154 GradPoint courses.

Furthermore the state identified several holes in the high school’s general curriculum.

“During the LDOE review, it was evident not all JFK students were enrolled in the appropriate foundational skills courses,” the report stated. “For instance, several students did not have an eligible health education credit that met graduation requirements or access to a biology course in 2017-2018.”

The state issued several directives relating to curriculum and course requirements, including enrolling all ninth and 10 graders in “a common set of foundational courses.”

New Beginnings also must provide “a copy of the school’s master schedule, course titles, and course codes by Aug. 2 2019, refraining from labeling courses in a way that could possibly mislead families or outside entities about the level of rigor.”

It’s unclear from the report exactly how the school’s course offerings may have been misleading, but the state also noted that New Beginnings had offered algebra classes that didn’t meet state  Taylor Opportunity Program for Students University Diploma track standards. The TOPS University track is intended to prepare high school students for four-year colleges and ensure that they are eligible to receive a TOPS scholarship. The state also has a TOPS Tech track, but according to the state, records from the school “indicated that all students were pursuing a university diploma.”

Special education

The state also identified concerns with Kennedy’s special education services. As a result, the high school will undergo intensive state-monitoring next school year.

The state found “several JFK students had outdated [Individual Education Plans],” plans developed to accommodate special needs students. Many of the IEPs “were poorly written and/or lacked appropriate goals.”

The state recommended Kennedy immediately identify all students with exceptionalities, audit IEP goals and ensure students with disabilities are aware they can pursue an alternative diploma offered by the state.

The network also must make a number of updates to its grading scale and student information system. Additionally, New Beginnings, must “develop a process for appropriately coding traditional courses and credit recovery courses” and “cease the practice of granting AP credit unless the student has completed the entire AP course.”

Kennedy must offer a second summer school session so “students may schedule courses to enrich their experiences, take new subjects, and/or address deficiencies.” Last month, Gang told The Lens that a second session was already being scheduled.

This story was updated after publication with a statement from the Orleans Parish School Board.

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...