Kennedy HS lawsuit delayed in ‘shell game’, lawyer says

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John F. Kennedy High School seniors still seeking their transcripts won’t get them Friday, after an emergency court hearing was continued while the Orleans Parish School Board and New Beginnings Schools Foundation argued they weren’t properly served with court documents. 

“It’s like a circus,” parent Sheila Wise said, shaking her head. “It doesn’t make no sense.”

Wise — who’s said her son has likely lost a football scholarship while he waits for proof that he was eligible to graduate high school — waited for hours in a Civil District Court hallway Friday morning, as the judge dealt with other matters. Even after the Kennedy hearing was finally up, nothing seemed to get resolved. 

Civil District Court Judge Rachael Johnson met with lawyers representing OPSB, New Beginnings and the Kennedy students behind closed doors for about 30 minutes. The lawyers returned to the courtroom before the judge and engaged in a 20 minute heated discussion about who the proper representative for each organization was. Lawyers for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and consulting group Ten Square Inc., also named in the lawsuit, were not present. 

The suit centers around allegations that Kennedy and New Beginnings staff improperly inflated students’ grades and failed to ensure that they were taking the right course loads. The lead plaintiff in the case alleges that Kennedy staff advised her to take classes online at home in order to graduate a year early. Later, the suit says, the New Beginnings charter school network revealed that those online classes were not administered correctly. She was supposed to be monitored by a certified teacher. In June, she and about 90 other class of 2019 students found out they had not actually graduated. About 70 of those students had been allowed to walk in the school’s graduation ceremony the previous month.   

The student and her mother, Darnette Daniels, filed the suit against New Beginnings, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state board of education last month. Their attorney is seeking class-action status on behalf of all Kennedy students who didn’t graduate this year. On Friday, Judge Rachael Johnson was supposed to consider an emergency motion from the plaintiffs asking the court to order the school to immediately hand over transcripts and diplomas. 

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, then CEO of the New Beginnings. She later resigned and is now teaching in Jefferson Parish public schools. Since then, the charter group has voted to surrender the charters for Kennedy and another elementary school effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Friday’s court proceedings did not impress Wise, who said her son Anthony has likely lost a scholarship to Baton Rouge Community College. He was planning to play football at Bayou Prep Football in Baton Rouge. Wise said Anthony was supposed to report to training in June but instead he was making up high school classwork, though he thought he had graduated a month earlier. 

“That’s what the teacher told them to do, and they did it. Now I find out after graduation that my child walked across the stage and still is not able to get a diploma,” she said. “That’s depressing for him, and the family really. He was the last baby boy and everyone was proud of him.”

“He feels like he failed,” Wise said, describing how her son and friends check on each other daily as they try to make plans for the unexpected situation they’ve been put in. 

“I’m going to take over. That’s why I’m here right now,” she said in the hallway of the courthouse. “Because he shouldn’t have to be dealing with this right now. It’s a crucial time in their lives. They’re trying to be young adults.” 

Former Orleans Parish School Board President Thomas Robichaux happened to be in court on another matter Friday. He practices civil law. Asked to comment on the situation at Kennedy he said the students are the victims.

“When you knowingly falsifying records and it goes into your school scores that’s a crime,” he said. “That’s a fraud on the public.”

Robichaux said raising students’ grades from F to a passing grade, knowing it would have a positive impact on the graduation rate, is unacceptable. He went on to criticize the state’s grading system, which oftentimes is the most important measure the district evaluates when deciding whether or not to keep charter schools open. 

“This is what happens when you grade schools like that,” Robichaux said. “You incentivize cheating.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney Suzette Bagneris said she understood the judge’s decision to continue the hearing to next week but that time is of the essence for Kennedy students. 

“These students are left in the balance. School starts at Kennedy on Monday,” she said after the hearing. “There are kids who’ve been told they need to repeat the year.”

She said students, like Wise, are stuck. 

“These kids are losing scholarship opportunities and financial aid opportunities while the defendants play a game of proper service,” she said. “It’s just unconscionable.”

Transcripts

Bagneris said that the Louisiana Department of Education, which is not a named defendant in the suit, and New Beginnings are pointing fingers at each other regarding who controls the release of the transcripts. Neither agency would comment specifically on her allegation when asked. 

Bagneris called the Louisiana Department of Education’s lawyer while in the courtroom.

“New Beginnings is blaming the LDOE,” Bagneris said in an interview after the hearing. “LDOE is saying that it’s absolutely untrue, that the ball is in the court of New Beginnings that has not provided them with enough documentation to certify the transcripts.”

New Beginnings’ lawyer Michelle Craig would not directly answer questions about who was holding up the transcript verification process. 

“We’re saying we’re doing everything we can at this point,” Craig said after the hearing. 

A letter from New Beginnings CEO Kevin George to “JFK Stakeholders,” addressed the issue. In the July 26 letter posted to the charter group’s website, George said the charter group has updated transcripts for students who completed requirements over the summer.

“That information must be reviewed and verified by the Louisiana Department of Education,” he wrote. “Once this is complete, we will advise parents and students of our next steps.”

Wise said she didn’t receive that letter. 

The Lens asked the Department of Education to comment on the letter. 

“We are working closely with the school to ensure, student-by-student, that all transcript information is accurate,” Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn wrote. “We understand and appreciate the urgency, and we are working as quickly as possible to complete this process.”

Dunn declined to comment on the Bagneris’ claim that New Beginnings is accusing the state of holding up transcripts. 

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School School argued in recent filings they shouldn’t be named in the lawsuit, stating the district “had no role in maintaining transcripts at John F. Kennedy.”

Student Progress

Some students have spent large parts of the summer taking makeup classes at Kennedy. But regular fall classes resume there on Monday. 

Kevin George said he knows some students who still have work to do won’t want to return to Kennedy.

“We have 53 students we believe have met the requirements,” George said Friday. He said the official clearance rests with the state. 

George didn’t specify the number of students who hadn’t met requirements. The school previously identified 92 students who hadn’t qualified, which would leave 39 students.

George said they can re-enroll at Kennedy, attend Delgado Community College, or take the state diploma equivalency exam. Students who need less than one credit can apply for a waiver from State Superintendent John White. But, if they are granted the waiver, they won’t qualify for TOPS scholarship, George said. 

Bagneris said some students who are lacking credits are frustrated because they don’t want to return to Kennedy and missed the registration deadlines at other local high schools. 

Wise’s son does not want to return to Kennedy. 

“Now he’s trying to find a job, he missed the deadline to submit his transcript to Bayou Prep,” she said. “The school kept checking in, she said. But they still don’t have it straight up to today.” 

When the hearing was over, Wise approached George. 

He had a moment to acknowledge her, but as she said, “My child is really at a loss right now,” an attorney whisked him away. 

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