From 2019, John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation voted unanimously Thursday to surrender the charters for both of its schools — John F. Kennedy High School and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The move comes amid third-party, local school district and state education department investigations into allegations of grade-fixing and other problems at Kennedy High School. 

“The things that I have learned in this process have been incredibly disturbing and saddening,” New Beginnings Board President Raphael Gang said. “While we can’t share all of the details of the investigation, it has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through to learn about the things that have happened to our students.”

The scandal has rocked the 690-student school, resulting in multiple investigations, a referral to the state inspector general and a lawsuit against the school where the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status. Some 2019 seniors are scrambling to make up credits they’d been told they earned when they walked across the stage at a mid-May commencement ceremony, only to learn one month later nearly half of those 177 students weren’t eligible for a diploma.

“It has been nothing short of one of the most depressing things that I’ve heard seen in my career and life to see what we’ve learned in this process,” Gang said.

New Beginnings’ new CEO Kevin George said that as of last week, 35 students had met the requirements for graduation over the summer.

It’s unclear how many still aren’t eligible for diplomas. In June, Gang said that 87 students from the class of 2019 were found to be ineligible. The network later revised that number to 92. Minus the 35 who have since completed their requirements, that would leave either 52 or 57 who still need additional credits to graduate. But school officials declined to confirm a number on Thursday night.

Orleans Parish schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. issued a statement following the unanimous board vote.

“First and foremost, both schools will remain open this coming school year and beyond,” he said. “Second, I have directed my team to expedite the process to identify and site a new charter operator that will begin to manage the schools starting in the 20-21 school year.”

Capdau, the city’s first Recovery School District charter school, is now located at 5800 St. Roch in a new school building that opened in 2017. The school has about 700 students.

Lewis promised the families will be involved in the decision of who operates the schools.

The move comes days after the New Beginnings Schools Foundation responded to an escalated warning the district sent on July 3 listing several documents and assurances New Beginnings had yet to provide, including details of the network’s investigation into allegedly improper grade inflation, which began in April.

Gang submitted a six-page letter with attachments to the district, reassuring officials the charter network would share the investigation when it was complete and outlining changes the charter group has already made.

Lewis had threatened to revoke Kennedy’s charter in a June letter where he wrote the charter group had been “deemed non-compliant with its contractual obligations.” There are multiple allegations of grade changes, Lewis wrote. “The most concerning are the allegations around changes that affect student qualifications for graduation.”

Lewis listed a host of operating agreement violations, including “imminent threat to the health, safety and/or welfare of students” regarding the grade changes.

In December, Lewis recommended Kennedy receive a five-year contract extension. According to documents obtained by The Lens, it does not appear the district reviewed student transcripts or course offerings and whether they align with state graduation requirements while reviewing Kennedy last year.

However, the district plans to conduct a citywide audit of high school student transcripts. And last week, it 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 process of finding a new operator will be left up to the Orleans Parish School Board. Gang said he hopes to ensure New Beginnings’ families have input in the decision.

Alleged grade-fixing

The rollercoaster ride for Kennedy’s seniors likely began long before they realized. But it all became public in March when former employee Runnell King went public with allegations of grade-fixing at the Gentilly high school, as first reported by The Lens.

King had been suspended and fired from the network shortly after reporting his suspicions to New Beginnings administrators last winter. At the time, administrators claimed they conducted an internal investigation and could not substantiate King’s claims.

However, in April, after The Lens’ story was published, the New Beginnings board hired a law firm to conduct a new investigation into the grade-fixing allegations. 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.

While it was searching for a new CEO, New Beginnings hired consulting firm TenSquare, LLC to manage the two-school network and help review student transcripts. A review of senior transcripts found nearly half of them weren’t eligible to graduate. Emails obtained by The Lens showed that review was hectic and continued on graduation day and for weeks after.

The school district and state also launched investigations. The state’s, which was released July 2, found Kennedy had misused credit recovery programs and had problems with its special education services. Those findings appeared to corroborate what one lawsuit filed in district court alleged.

In a May 24 letter, Gang said a “final report” of the law firm’s investigation would be presented the following week. But the investigation continued, and the final results have not been presented to the public.

In a Monday letter, Gang reiterated several times that the district would receive information once the investigation was complete. He also hinted at what could be an expanding investigation. “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.”

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Gang said he could not say whether the investigation was complete.

Students’ options

Thursday’s meeting started on a much different note, with new CEO Kevin George introducing new team members, explaining how he had trimmed the budget and updating board members on seniors’ progress in summer school.

The state required New Beginnings to add an extra session of summer school and that will end Friday.

“As of July 10, there were 35 kids who had met those requirements,” George said, but he said not all students would finish by Friday.

“We’re going to create a new prescription for those kids that have not completed their requirements,” George said, explaining they would outline everything students need to complete.

George said there are several options for the students who still don’t meet graduation requirements this summer.

“They can return to school in the fall,” he said, saying the students are welcome back at Kennedy. “Obviously if they walked across the stage they’re probably not going to want to do that.”

George said they can attend another school and added that New Beginnings is also working on a partnership with Delgado Community College.

“If kids need one credit or less, they may have the option of getting a waiver from the state superintendent,” George said.

However, he said, that could come with a serious consequence: losing eligibility for a TOPS college scholarship.

“What we learned about the state of academic performance” this year and in prior years, board member Katie Patterson said “is deeply concerning and students deserve better.”

Board member Marlo Lacen also shared a few words.

“I want to say thank you to everybody that worked diligently to get to the bottom of this,” she said, continuing on describing a city of charter schools.

“It was really saddening to know that in a city where we’re in this kind of like school experimentation and we don’t have a traditional school system, we kind of have this oversight situation. But then there was no oversight,” she said. “And at the end of the day students and families were harmed.”

“Then our senior class at JFK got cheated out of that moment that they’ve been getting ready for for so long,” she said. “It’s just really a shame.”

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...