Four Helen Cox High School administrators in the Jefferson Parish Public School System are on paid leave amid an investigation into improper grade changes that affected five students, Superintendent Cade Brumley told The Lens Monday.
“We found that as we did our investigation, five students who had received their diploma in May, they had a grade changed in one of their courses,” Brumley said.
The district received the information about the so-called “records fraud” and launched the investigation after graduation, Brumley said. The five students each had a grade changed in a different course. Brumley did not provide specifics on the nature of the changes, saying only that the grades were increased in the students’ favor.
In contrast to John F. Kennedy High School in New Orleans — where alleged grade inflation and other problems led to about half of the 2019 senior class not being allowed to graduate — the five Cox students will keep their diplomas.
“We needed to find an opportunity to validate their diplomas,” Brumley said.
“We built a proficiency test aligned to state standards. Our plan was to allow them take it and if they needed remediation provide it,” Brumley said.
All five students passed the proficiency test Monday morning, Brumley said, giving him confidence in their diplomas.
In a letter, Brumley said the district will begin tracking grade change reports and student-record audits will begin this school year.
The Orleans Parish school district will also now audit high school student transcripts, following the recent scandal at Kennedy. The New Beginnings Schools Foundation operates Kennedy and is surrendering the charter at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Brumley said he notified the Louisiana Department of Education Superintendent John White about the ‘records fraud’ on Monday. Department spokeswoman Sydni Dunn confirmed the state received a letter “indicating that five members of the Helen Cox High School class of 2019 had not passed all courses required in order to graduate.”
Dunn said the department feels the district properly addressed the problem.
Brumley also sent a letter to the “Helen Cox Family” explaining the situation.
The 1,073-student high school is located on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish in Harvey. The 2019 graduating class had 276 students, Brumley said.
“We did have a conversation with teachers in these classrooms and they confirmed that they did not authorize the grade change,” Brumley said. “So that would have had to have happened above.”
“Once we began the investigation we did put four of our administrators on leave,” he said. “They are presently still on leave.”
Principal Mark Perry, an assistant principal and two deans are on leave and “going through due process,” Brumley said. He said Cox’s acting principal is Brandon Van Vleck.
“It’s our responsibility to ensure integrity in this system,” Brumley said. “We’re only as good as the integrity we have and moving forward it should be affirmed to people that we’re not going to tolerate actions that lead to academic dishonesty.”
Additionally, he said the district discovered absence issues with 24 students at Cox. They were able to secure documentation from families for 22 of those students. But Brumley said they are trying to contact two other seniors and the absences could affect their diplomas. “We will allow them to recover seat time for the amount of time they missed.”
Brumley said the investigation into the issues at Cox is nearly wrapped up.
“We regret that this has happened, but given the situation that we have we feel strongly that we’ve acted appropriately to overcome the situation.”
Meanwhile, Brumley confirmed that the Jefferson Parish district has also hired former New Beginnings Schools Foundation CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, who was suspended and then resigned from the New Orleans charter network during the ongoing investigation into grade changes at Kennedy. Blouin-Williams is working as a math teacher, Brumley confirmed. Before coming to New Beginnings in 2016, Blouin-Williams was a longtime teacher and administrator in Jefferson Parish.
“Michelle has been hired as a math teacher which is a critical shortage area for us.”
Asked if he had concerns about her work at New Beginnings, which recently voted to surrender both of its charter contracts — for Kennedy and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — he said he did not.
“I think whatever has happened between her and New Beginnings happened between her and New Beginnings,” he said. “We have no information that would prevent us from making the hire of an employee who has served successfully for two decades.”
Update: This story was updated with information from the Louisiana Department of Education. (July 23, 2019)