Tanya Scott described John F. Kennedy High School’s graduation day concisely: “It was horrible.”
She had expected her grandson, Dwayne Crenshaw, to be named salutatorian of the class of 2019. Crenshaw had spent years battling for the top spot in his class with a friendly rival, he said. And this has all been part of a larger plan — to secure a college scholarship so as to not place any burden on his grandmother.
“My mom and dad haven’t really been around,” he said. “I didn’t want to put the financial strain on her so I worked in order to be the perfect student.”
Weeks before graduation day, he told The Lens, he checked his records. While he hadn’t secured valedictorian, he said, he was listed as number two in the class. But when it came time for the ceremony, on May 17, he wasn’t named salutatorian.
“Because of my standing, I think I lost out on a scholarship. There are some places that give scholarships for salutatorian,” he said. “I feel like I was robbed. It’s not fair.”
Crenshaw, who said he will be attending North Carolina A&T State University this fall, is far from the only student who may have been been adversely affected by what NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis called the “careless and reckless actions of the adults” at Kennedy.
One Kennedy senior and her mother have filed suit against New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter network that runs the school, as well as the Orleans Parish and state school boards, alleging that school officials improperly allowed the teenager to take classes online without a teacher supervising. According to the suit, she found out this summer that the coursework would not count and she, like dozens of others in this year’s senior class, were ineligible to graduate.
The plaintiffs’ attorney is seeking class-action status on behalf of other 2019 seniors found ineligible to graduate. A court filing from this week demands that the school release diplomas immediately and details several students on the brink of losing scholarships, WWL-TV reported.
The last several months have been difficult for Kennedy’s class of 2019. In March, The Lens reported on allegations of grade-fixing at the school. Those allegations led, in part, to the suspension of Michelle Blouin-Williams, CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter school network that runs the Gentilly High School. She later resigned.
In her absence, the New Beginnings board of directors brought in consulting firm TenSquare, LLC to help manage the network. Working with school employees, TenSquare identified a series of discrepancies in senior class transcripts. A review of senior class records, which began in April, stretched on well past graduation day. More than a month after the ceremony, about half of Kennedy’s senior class learned that they had not been eligible to graduate.
Crenshaw was not one of those students. But he does have some lingering questions about his own transcript, like how he slipped from salutatorian — second in his class — to fourth right before graduation day.
“I had checked my grades about four weeks before,” he said. “I checked my unofficial transcripts because I had scholarships I was applying for and I saw I was number 2 out of 177.”
“I was like ‘OK, so I know I’m going to be salutatorian,’ ” he said. “About time the awards ceremony came, I was bumped to number four and I was like, ‘Did I shift that drastically in that time frame?’ ”
Crenshaw and Scott have a lot of questions for the New Beginnings Schools Foundation. The charter group has volunteered to give up Kennedy and its other elementary school amid multiple investigations.
Asked if anything could remedy the situation, Scott said, “His scholarship to college. What he deserves. … His college free. That’s why he put in the work.”
This week, the organization said that while it’s focusing on providing summer school to the students who failed to graduate, it is also recalculating GPAs.
Even if Crenshaw comes out with the salutatorian title, his grandmother said it’s too little, too late.
“He will never get this moment back,” she said. “It’s a moment in life you will never get back.”
Emails from the week of graduation show Kennedy staff and TenSquare scrambled to determine who was eligible for a diploma. Those emails also called into doubt how the valedictorian and salutatorian were determined as staff argued and then determined they didn’t know students’ GPAs had been affected.
“I am writing to share concern voiced by [Kennedy counselor Ashlei] DeLarge this morning in regard to the calculation of the valedictorian and salutatorian grade point averages,” Kennedy employee Nicole Cooper wrote in an email on graduation day.
The conversations continued, with no clear consensus, up to an hour before graduation was set to begin.
“If you’re willing to wait until we submit transcripts to (the state) to determine who is the Val and Sal, that would be the most official way to make the determination,” contractor Laney French wrote. “But it obviously couldn’t be done by the ceremony today.”
Scott said when she learned of her grandson’s rank she had questions.
“When this first happened someone answered [the phone] at Kennedy and she said sometimes they use other methods to get the Val and Sal. I’m like, ‘Other methods, I have never in my life heard of methods.’ GPA is used for valedictorian and salutatorian,” she said. “But nobody never returned my call after that.”
Scott and Crenshaw said they still don’t know how class rankings were calculated.
As July comes to a close, New Beginnings’ CEO Kevin George is overseeing summer school for students still working towards diplomas. For those that don’t finish, he and his team will write student-specific plans. Some may have to return to high school in the fall.
“We are engaging in another process to recalculate the GPAs of these students,” George said. “We are in the middle of that process and cannot discuss it at this time.”
Asked to clarify which students might be getting new GPAs, George emailed back, “As we stated, we are reviewing the grades and the grading process. That is all of the information that we have at this time.”
Crenshaw is frustrated and discouraged. He’s more determined than ever to leave New Orleans and its education system behind, he said.
“It’s been a subpar school to begin with,” he said. “And I’ve been in the New Beginnings network since I was in kindergarten.”
Crenshaw started kindergarten seven blocks away from his grandmother’s house on Franklin Avenue at St. James Major Church. The church housed Pierre A. Capdau Charter School after Hurricane Katrina and shared part of the building with a rebuilding nonprofit.
A few years later, Capdau moved to the Thurgood Marshall building on Canal Street. Capdau was the first school taken over by the state-run Recovery School District, which happened before the storm, and the New Beginnings Schools Foundation ran it.
Crenshaw’s 13 years of education have all been at New Beginnings, between Capdau and Kennedy. The high school was formerly known as Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, but it took on the John F. Kennedy name — after the former high school that closed after Katrina — last summer after connecting with the Kennedy alumni association.
“When I went to high school, actually that wasn’t my first choice,” Crenshaw recalled. “I wanted to go to Warren Easton or International High School, but OneApp placed me at Lake Area. I didn’t understand how when it wasn’t my first choice.”
Crenshaw recalled his freshman year as “unstable and unsturdy.”
“My first year there was a revolving door of teachers,” he said. “I had to take initiative and do a lot of the stuff on my own.”
He began working with College Track to help ensure his college plans would become a reality. He planned to transfer schools sophomore year but it didn’t work out, he said. “It was a little more stable but it was still a revolving door of teachers.”
Junior year was smooth, he said. Teachers were staying, and things were more stable.
“By the end of junior year we found out we would be transitioning to John F. Kennedy,” he said. “That’s when everything went right back the way that it was freshman year. And senior year, it was horrible.”
Crenshaw said he largely had to fend for himself but worked to persevere.
That atmosphere seems to have been confirmed by New Beginnings board members at a board meeting last week after a lengthy closed-door session to discuss misconduct. In April, following the grade-fixing allegations being made public, the board engaged a law firm to investigate the school. The results of the investigation have not been released, reportedly due to a potential law enforcement investigation, but some board members have described troubling findings. And along with Blouin-Williams’ suspension in April, five Kennedy administrators lost their jobs in May after investigators turned up “strong evidence of improper conduct.”
“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 President Raphael Gang had similar sentiments.
“The things that I have learned in this process have been incredibly disturbing and saddening,” he 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.”
Kennedy has also been subject to investigations by the state and the Orleans Parish School Board. Early this month, the state released a report detailing misuse of credit recovery at the school and a lack of foundational courses. The state also ordered New Beginnings to provide extra summer school for students.
And at that New Beginnings’ July meeting, under growing threat of charter revocation from the New Orleans school district, board members unanimously voted to surrender the charters for their two schools. That will become effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Crenshaw doesn’t think that’s soon enough.
“I don’t think New Beginnings should be running anything anymore,” he said. “I’ve been in a charter school my whole life. It’s been proven to be ineffective. So why is it still operating like this?”
“If something doesn’t work why keep using it. That’s the definition of madness. You know, doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different outcome.”