The Orleans Parish School Board has again issued a warning letter to John F. Kennedy High School, this time for failing to submit information regarding an investigation into alleged grade-fixing and other problems at the Gentilly charter school. Those problems left half of the 2019 senior glass ineligible for graduation, though many didn’t find that out until more than a month after they had walked in the May graduation ceremony.
The July 3 warning to New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which runs the school, is an expansion of a warning Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson issued one month earlier.
In April, the New Beginnings board hired a law firm to conduct an investigation into allegations that some students grades were improperly changed from failing to passing, which The Lens first reported in March. The firm was also commissioned to look into allegations, first reported by WWL-TV, that then-New Beginnings CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams had doctored board meeting minutes to falsely reflect a board vote awarding a lucrative bus contract. Blouin-Williams has since resigned.
In a May 24 letter, Gang said a “final report” would be presented the following week. But the investigation continued, and the final results have not been presented to the public. According to Peterson’s July 3 letter, New Beginnings likewise kept details of the investigation from the school district. In a Monday letter, Gang reiterated several times that the district would receive information once the investigation was complete.
“At this time there are several outstanding items that OPSB has requested and NBSF has failed to provide,” Peterson wrote. “It is critically important that your organization immediately comply with expectations set forth in the charter contract and communications transmitted from OPSB regarding this matter.”
Share your story: Help The Lens report on credit recovery in New Orleans high schools
If the network fails to hand over the outstanding documents, the district could revoke Kennedy’s charter, Peterson wrote.
Asked for an update Monday, the district released the following statement: “Revocation is being considered as we monitor and review information related to our investigation.”
Late Monday afternoon, New Beginnings’ Board President Raphael Gang submitted an explanation of changes the organization has made and reiterated that the charter group’s investigation was ongoing. He said Tropical Storm Barry delayed the team’s response. Gang said the investigation would be shared with Orleans Parish school district officials upon completion.
The district can revoke a charter contract if the charter group has violated the terms. In June, Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote that New Beginnings was “deemed non-compliant with its contractual obligations.” While a rare use of its power, the district last fall threatened to revoke Edgar P. Harney elementary school’s contract after repeated warnings related to financial irregularities and inadequate special education services. Harney’s charter group instead voluntarily surrendered the charter, and the district took the school over in January, closing it after the end of the 2018-2019 school year.
If Kennedy’s contract is revoked, the district could run it directly, another charter group could take over the school or it could close.
The two-page warning letter says OPSB staff met with Gang and newly appointed New Beginnings CEO Kevin George on June 20. Days later, the district issued “additional remedy actions” related to the initial early June warning. The most recent notice was issued one day after a Louisiana Department of Education released a review that found myriad problems with the charter school’s operations.
Peterson goes on to list 13 items, some incredibly detailed, including a variety of assurances, plans, and reports that the district has yet to receive from the two-school charter network.
The grade-fixing allegations first came to public light in mid-March when former employee Runell King raised red flags about what he called suspicious grade changes at the 690-student school.
King was suspended and fired shortly after bringing his suspicions to the network’s attention. And the district now wants New Beginnings to clarify whether its third-party investigation “will include a review of any possible violations of whistleblower laws as it relates to Dr. King’s dismissal by NBSF.”
Gang’s letter said the report “will address the circumstances surrounding his termination and cause for the same.”
In April, Blouin-Williams, the former CEO, was placed on paid leave and later resigned. The charter group also hired law firm Adams and Reese to investigate the allegations and the district and state launched their own investigations.
After Blouin-Williams’ suspension, the board hired consulting firm TenSquare LLC to temporarily manage the network. TenSquare employees, working with New Beginnings staff, began looking into student records, identifying a number of problems that apparently went well beyond grade-fixing. Emails obtained by The Lens showed a frantic review of seniors’ records leading up to the schools May 17 graduation. It was not finished, however, in time for the ceremony, continuing well into the next month.
A review released last month found nearly half of Kennedy seniors were ineligible to graduate, even though many had walked across the stage a month earlier. The district is requiring the charter group to change policies and help students meet graduation requirements over the summer.
It appears the New Beginnings’ investigation may be expanding, per Gang’s letter to district leaders. “As we have discussed on multiple occasions, our investigation is evolving in that several other areas of concern have emerged including those related to investigations of other grade changes, teacher malfeasance and improper conduct.”
The district wants a specific outline for how New Beginnings will use credit recovery programs — intended to allow students to redo coursework in classes they have failed. Misuse of the credit recovery program GradPoint, including enrolling students in remediation for classes they had never taken, left multiple seniors unqualified for graduation, a state review found.
That’s what Kennedy parent Darnette Daniels says happened to her daughter. Daniels’ 17-year-old daughter took extra classes on GradPoint at the behest of a counselor in an attempt to graduate early. But Daniels says she later learned those online courses didn’t count because they hadn’t been properly supervised. Daniels is suing the charter group, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state department of education on behalf of her daughter.
In an interview last month, Gang told The Lens that the charter group is using a new credit recovery program now. On Monday, his letter outlined new policies for credit recovery at the high school.
The district is demanding a plan from New Beginnings that would examine and help any students who weren’t allowed to graduate due to the grading problems. “If students’ ability to graduate was compromised, any steps to allow for students to remedy this during the summer should be contemplated and explained,” Peterson wrote.
The district wants investigation details and an explanation of “any steps taken to ensure against unlawful tampering with official documents.” The charter network is also supposed to submit weekly reports showing students’ summer attendance and their progress toward graduation. And the district has requested “any steps being taken to ensure that the integrity of the grading process is intact and to prevent any unlawful grade manipulation in the future.”
In the letter sent to the district Monday, Gang said the charter network is using a new online grading software that is more secure and has a new system for storing board meeting minutes.
The missing information from Kennedy hasn’t stopped the district from acting. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has called for a citywide audit of high school student records.
Lewis also 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.”
The New Beginnings charter board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Update: This story was updated to include additional information the New Beginnings Schools Foundation provided to the Orleans Parish school district Monday afternoon.