A car parked at Xavier University's Convocation Center in May 2019 for Kennedy High School's graduation ceremony is covered in Kennedy blue and gold "Miss J.F.K Class 2019 Ariel" it reads. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Paulette Irons on Tuesday denied an emergency request to produce transcripts for 92 John F. Kennedy High School 2019 seniors who were found to be ineligible to graduate. Her ruling came after a lengthy hearing in a lawsuit filed against Kennedy’s charter operator, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state board of education last month by one of those students and her mother.

Due to admitted malfeasance, many of those students, including some who have been taking summer classes, still don’t know if they’ve earned enough credits to graduate. Tuesday’s hearing revealed that, months after the school’s May 17 graduation ceremony, officials don’t have what they need to give them answers.

The Louisiana Department of Education needs more information from Kennedy’s charter network, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, to evaluate whether the 53 students who the charter group said completed make-up course work over the summer actually qualify for a state diploma, according to a department employee who testified under oath Tuesday.

Despite taking summer courses, some of those students are in danger of not meeting requirements again, state Director of Assessment and Accountability Administration Jennifer Baird said. She described problems that extended beyond the charter high school’s misuse of online courses to a fundamental failure of serving some special education students.

”The children did what the adults told them to do.”—Darnette Daniels

“This is worse than we thought because now some of the 53 might not graduate,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Suzette Bagneris, who is seeking class-action status on behalf of all 92 students, said after the hearing.

Darnette Daniels, the lead plaintiff’s mother, said after the hearing that she feels like the agencies are all blaming each other. Daniels said she’d rushed over to the courthouse from work after Bagneris told her opposing counsel told her they would not continue without the lead plaintiff present. Wearing her name badge in court, she said she was worried she might get fired.

“The children did what the adults told them to do.”

The 53 students represent slightly more than half of the 92 students who learned in June they were not eligible for high school diplomas. Of those students, 69 had been allowed to participate in the mid-May commencement ceremony clad in blue and gold regalia.

For the last several months, their families have dealt with the fallout. Several student families are following the lawsuit, the judge was considering an emergency request to produce transcripts.

Kennedy parents again watched in court Tuesday as they hoped Civil District Court Judge Paulette Irons would order New Beginnings to immediately produce transcripts for students trying to enroll in college this fall and secure scholarships and financial aid. Irons said she couldn’t do that but hoped to get parents answers and expedite the process.

Irons denied the students’ lawyer Suzette Bagneris’ request for an emergency writ of mandamus, which compels a government agency to perform a fundamental duty.

“We need to let these kids know because hope is about to die,” Irons said from the bench.

Who controls the transcripts?

Both the Orleans Parish School Board and New Beginnings Schools Foundation fought the filing on different grounds.

Orleans Parish School Board lawyer Sharonda Williams argued the district does not have the information needed to complete transcripts.

“The school board is not involved in that process,” Williams said, pointing to a charter operating agreement. “Under the agreement, the schools do all of the data management.”

Bagneris argued the district could seek the information needed from the charter school, which, she noted, is also in the charter agreement.

Still, Irons maintained she couldn’t order the district to produce information it did not have.

Then Irons laid out three important questions.

“Who has the transcripts? What are the delays? What do we need to do to receive them?” she asked.

Next in the line of inquiry was why the Louisiana Department of Education wasn’t a named party in the lawsuit. Bagneris named the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the elected state education board, in the suit, but not the department, which administers education policy and controls student data.

“They are the ones who can give you what you want,” Irons said. “But they’re not a party.”

A lawyer for BESE made a brief appearance Tuesday, stating the board does not have access to student transcripts.

Bagneris then called Baird to the stand to explain what information exactly was needed to complete transcripts.

Baird explained the state stepped in in June when the graduation problems were identified. “We helped develop a process for them.”

“At the end of that process, we created a file for every single student,” she said, explaining it outlined what they needed to graduate.

”Who has the transcripts? What are the delays? What do we need to do to receive them?”—Judge Paulette Irons

But now, Baird said, the state needs specific reports for each student who completed summer school. Those reports come from EdGenuity, the online software New Beginnings is using for summer school courses, and contain student log-in and log-out times along with other information the state needs to ensure that students meet graduation requirements.

Bagneris pointed out the district could request those from New Beginnings.

“She can get it in three days,” Bagneris said.

“I’m pretty sure she can get it in three hours,” Irons said, who continued testimony so Baird could explain what was missing.

After the hearing, The Lens asked New Beginnings lawyer Lesley Muse-Vincent whether the group would provide the reports to the state.

“We’re providing all that we have,” Muse-Vincent said.

Asked specifically about the Baird’s testimony regarding the EdGenuity reports, Muse-Vincent said she could not comment further.

Then, The Lens asked NOLA Public Schools whether it would seek the EdGenuity reports from New Beginnings. The school district did not respond.

During the hearing, Baird explained that when New Beginnings seeks graduation eligibility confirmation from the state, the charter group enters information into the student transcript system. If the state reviews the information and approves it, New Beginnings can then enter a graduation date and produce a transcript.

But the state is being extra cautious this time around, so as not to end up where they did in the spring. Baird explained a host of circumstances the state needs more information about.

“Some of the students took courses in the summer that weren’t what we recommended,” Baird said.

Other students had special education plans written so poorly the state department can’t assess whether those students met the goals they were supposed to meet. Other students did not meet the requirements for high school assessments, she said.

“We are missing the detailed transcript that we need,” she said, referring to the EdGenuity report.

Asked if all students could learn their fate by Friday, Baird said she wasn’t sure, but noted she’d approved one student earlier in the day.

Bagneris asked Baird when the process would be complete.

“For all the students?” Baird asked. “I can’t answer that.”

‘We’re going to work this out’

Muse-Vincent also argued the charter school group is not a political subdivision — or a governmental body — and therefore not subject to the order Bagneris was seeking.

“New Beginnings is a private nonprofit corporation,” Muse-Vincent said. “We contract for (the school district).”

”Quite simply, all of the kids are not going to get across the finish line.”—Leslie Muse-Vincent, New Beginnings attorney

Muse-Vincent pointed to a 2018 decision in a labor case from the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, finding that nonprofit charter operators in Louisiana are not political subdivisions. In 2010, a federal district judge likewise sided with Lusher Charter School, finding that it was not a political subdivision. (Several years later, in a different dispute, Lusher would argue that it was, in fact, a political subdivision.)

Bagneris charged that charter schools receive “all the benefits of being a public school but are able to hide behind a non-profit corporation.”

Irons again went on a fact-finding mission, “We’re going to work this out.”

She turned to Muse-Vincent and said, “You’re not going to come in here and not work with us, right?”

Muse-Vincent said New Beginnings was prepared to help. “We stand at the ready.”

She also said she thought the state should be included in the lawsuit, because the New Beginnings sends information to the state and the state has to approve it before the charter group can enter a graduation date on a student’s transcript.

“New Beginnings can’t get what we need for the students because there’s a discretionary review that happens at the end” of the process,” Muse-Vincent said.

“Quite simply all, of the kids are not going to get across the finish line,” Muse-Vincent said. “We have all hands on deck.”

“We can only do so much with what we have.”

Irons reflected on the high school experience, noting adults guided the students those course selection. “We can’t blame the kids here.”

“New Beginnings is not blaming the kids,” Muse-Vincent said.

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...