Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

In the wake of a scandal involving alleged grade-fixing and error-filled student transcripts that left half of the 2019 seniors at John F. Kennedy High School ineligible to graduate, Orleans Parish schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is looking to hire someone to audit all New Orleans high school students’ transcripts.

The school district has posted a job opening for an assistant director of high school accountability to design an auditing process and conduct annual audits at the high schools. The district wants applications in by next week. 

Kennedy High School’s graduation problems have led to ongoing third-party and school district investigations. A Louisiana Department of Education review, completed earlier this month, found the 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 new position has a focus on charter school accountability, a key element of the district’s now all-charter system. It’s unclear whether the district evaluated high schools’ offering of courses and their use of credit recovery programs in the past. Charter schools are considered their own districts and submit information on students’ graduation eligibility directly to the state.

The Lens obtained documents the school district used to evaluate Kennedy last fall, which included site-visit observations, a review of teachers’ certifications and background checks and a review of five special education files. The district employee also sat in on a few classes, observing the teachers’ classroom techniques. It’s wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether the records were complete. 

They did not appear to evaluate Kennedy’s course offerings or student transcripts and whether they met state standards for graduation. Lewis granted the Gentilly high school a five-year contract renewal in December.

Kennedy graduation problems

After The Lens first reported allegations of improper 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.

In Blouin-Williams’ absence, New Beginnings hired a consulting firm, TenSquare LLC, to manage the network. Working with school staff, firm employees uncovered a large number of irregularities with Kennedy senior transcripts. Some students didn’t know they’d failed state required end-of-course exams. Other students lacked the required number of instructional minutes. The school’s solution to that was to take online courses that the review later concluded didn’t count because they were taken without supervision. Many of the students had been incorrectly led to believe that they had completed all requirements to graduate. 

After that review, New Beginnings’ board president announced that five administrators at the high school were “no longer employees.”

Soon after New Beginnings opened its investigation, the Orleans Parish School Board and state department of education began reviews as well. 

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.”

Course recovery credit problems was one of the many irregularities that resulted in about half of the senior class learning — one month after commencement — they had been ineligible to graduate. Other students were missing end-of-course exams, lacked the state-mandated minimum required instructional minutes or had transcript issues from transferring schools. 

The mother of one of those seniors has sued the charter group, school district and state on behalf of her daughter. She said her daughter took online classes at the behest of a counselor to graduate this year — one year early — but later learned the courses didn’t count for credit because they were not supervised by a teacher. The teenager must return to high school this fall.

Their lawyer said at a minimum the 17-year-old deserves the costs of her 2019 class ring and senior photos back and damages for lost opportunities. 

The school district’s ongoing review and attempts to work with New Beginnings appear to have been fraught. The district has issued new warnings and recently sent a letter to the charter group, stating the charter network had not provided school district-required information on grade-fixing and transcript errors. In that July 3 letter, escalating a prior warning and citing missing information, the district asked multiple times to be assured the charter’s final report would be shared. Lewis has also said he is considering revoking Kennedy’s charter. 

New Beginnings’ Board President responded in a Monday letter, reassuring the district it would share its investigation findings upon the investigation’s completion and outlining new safeguard measures for record-keeping. 

In a Thursday report, district staff said they are present daily at the school and are going to follow-up with principals and counselors “with robust accountability measures.” 

Kennedy’s Renewal

The district’s new hire will be yet another step the city has taken in a path toward more centralized oversight. The city began re-centralizing enrollment in 2012 and created a student hearing office to oversee all expulsions in charter schools in 2014. 

The new assistant director will act “as a liaison to field parent community concerns and student rights violations” and be in charge of “monitoring of student academic performance and verification of requirements for graduation.”

District officials did not answer The Lens’ questions about whether such monitoring was conducted in the past. But records The Lens obtained of district reviews of Kennedy prior to its charter renewal last year do not appear to include scrutiny of the areas — including student transcript accuracy — that contributed to the school’s graduation problem this year. 

New Orleans’ all-charter system relies on charter contracts between the district and the dozens of nonprofit charter groups that educate the city’s roughly 45,000 students. In exchange for the ability to hire who they want, set their own calendars, and choose their preferred curriculum, charters must meet annual benchmarks to stay open. In the final year of a charter contract, the district conducts a review and the superintendent either recommends a contract extension or closes the school. 

Last spring, the Orleans Parish School Board approved a “Charter School Accountability Framework” which outlines the standards charter schools must meet. It also spells out the charter renewal process. 

On the annual site-visit, district staff conduct a school-based compliance review, a school walkthrough, observe classes, and speak with the school leader and either the charter network CEO or board chair.  

On September 26, 2018, the Orleans Parish school district’s Director of School Performance Toni Pickett visited Kennedy High School to do just that, according to her review. Blouin-Williams, the former New Beginnings CEO, is listed as the network’s representative

The Lens obtained Pickett’s notes from classroom observations and a final report, which the district used in determining whether Kennedy’s charter should be renewed last fall. 

In the 10 documents the district provided to The Lens, which covered the classroom visits, suspension rates, state standardized test results and three quarterly financial health reports, nothing appears to examine course offerings or graduation eligibility. 

The annual site-visit form measures 13 compliance areas. Six are related to special education files. Those were in order. Four are related to whether the school has certain required posters. Pickett marked the school “in compliance.”

Did the school have a “sign or notice of translation service offerings as required by [Office of Civil Rights] guidelines?” It did

The other three compliance checks are: staff background checks and fingerprints, teaching and other credentials and documented protocol for student privacy. Kennedy was “in compliance” for all three. 

Pickett’s notes from classroom visits detail trips to three different classroom. An English class, a Spanish class and a Biology class. 

She was looking for teaching techniques, whether the teacher was introducing higher level thinking and whether the instruction ended with an activity that reinforces what students learned among other things. 

The Lens asked a district spokeswoman if student graduation eligibility or student-record keeping was part of the Kennedy review. She did not respond to the question prior to publication of this story. 

As the district beefs up its monitoring with the new position, Kennedy is also adding staff. At a finance committee meeting Tuesday night, New Beginnings’ new CEO Kevin George said they plan to audit all student files in the upcoming year. 

“We are not going down that road again this year,” he said. 

George said the charter group is hiring additional counselors. 

“We are still cleaning up the work from previous years,” he said. 

Both New Beginnings and the Orleans Parish School Board hold their monthly board meetings Thursday night. 

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...