John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue in Gentilly. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Seven-school charter network KIPP New Orleans is interested in taking over struggling John F. Kennedy High School amid a mismanagement scandal that led to dozens of 2019 Kennedy seniors being unable to graduate on time.

KIPP New Orleans’ Director of Communications Curtis Elmore confirmed the network’s interest in taking over Kennedy, along with the pre-K through eighth grade Pierre Capdau Charter School, from their current charter operator: the New Beginnings Schools Foundation. New Beginnings plans to surrender both charters at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

“We know there is a great need for an excellent operator to work with John F. Kennedy High School and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School and we have told NOLA Public Schools that we are willing to support the students and families of these schools to ensure that they are in a safe and stable learning environment for the 2020-2021 school year,” Elmore wrote in an email.

The last five months have been agonizing for Kennedy students. The Lens revealed allegations that teachers improperly inflated students’ grades in March. The network suspended its CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams and opened an internal investigation. (Blouin-Williams later resigned.) An outside contractor, managing the network in Blouin-Williams’ place, discovered serious errors in Kennedy seniors’ records. By June, the network admitted that about half of the 2019 class were not eligible to graduate. That include about 70 students who had been led to believe they had graduated and were allowed to participate in the May commencement ceremony.

”We have told NOLA Public Schools that we are willing to support the students and families of these schools to ensure that they are in a safe and stable learning environment for the 2020-2021 school year.”—Curtis Elmore, KIPP New Orleans

The revelations led to separate administrative investigations by the NOLA Public Schools district and the state Department of Education. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. requested a criminal investigation and called for a citywide audit of high school students’ transcripts. New Beginnings, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state board of education are now facing a lawsuit filed by a student who was unable to move on from high school this year. Her lawyer is seeking class-action status on behalf of all Kennedy students who failed to graduate.

Amid the scandals, the New Beginnings board voted to surrender the charters for both schools at the end of this school year, leaving them without an operator for the 2020-2021 school year.

When a charter group gives up its charter contract, the district can close the school, take it over, or find a new charter group to run it. Both Capdau and Kennedy are in new buildings, increasing the likelihood that the district will keep them open.

Charter board meeting minutes from July show KIPP CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise had talked with Orleans Parish School Board members about adding a K-8 elementary school and high school to the network, but the minutes don’t specify which schools.

Five days later, she sent NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. a letter stating the network’s interest.

“We believe that as a single operator working with both Kennedy and Capdau, we will be able to ensure consistency for the students, families and staff at both schools,” she wrote. “The transformation of these schools is not something that we will take lightly.”

As of late July, Kalifey-Aluise said KIPP was already working with New Beginnings.

“Because of our dedication to the young people of this city, we are already in discussions with NBSF about partnering to provide talent, instructional and academic supports for the upcoming school year so that students can have a regular school year no matter what operator is named in the future,” she wrote.

”The transformation of these schools is not something that we will take lightly..”—Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, KIPP New Orleans

Elmore said KIPP staff members have met with Kennedy parents, students, staff and alumni.

That included meeting with John F. Kennedy Alumni Association, which KIPP says it has the support of.

Some parents and community advocates voiced concern to WDSU last week after they weren’t allowed to attend a meeting the charter group held with the alumni group. The move is reminiscent of a private 2018 meeting between district officials and McDonogh 35 Senior High School alumni. Two McDonogh 35 alumni who ran Smothers Academy were allowed to attend that meeting while parents and community members waited outside. Smothers eventually applied to run the school but was ultimately denied.

Parents don’t technically have any formal role in the charter selection process, but the district and charter groups often hold parent meetings and take input. But the decision is Lewis. Unless the Orleans Parish School Board votes with a two-thirds majority to override him, Lewis’ recommendations on charter openings and closings stand.

The district “initiated the process of identifying a new operator for JFK by meeting with charter operators eligible to transform a high school due to existing charter approvals,” said a written statement — attributed to the district — sent last week from NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Ambria Washington.

On Tuesday, the district said no additional charter groups had expressed interest in running Kennedy.

While New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang didn’t specifically respond to an inquiry regarding KIPP, he said the charter network is working with the district to transition both schools to new operators.

“While the NBSF Board does not have a formal role in the decision making process, which is solely the decision of Superintendent Lewis, we are excited that our school communities will have the opportunity for input into the process and look forward to ensuring our families know about the incoming operator(s) in time for the upcoming student enrollment cycle,” he wrote, referring to the district’s centralized enrollment lottery, OneApp, which opens in the fall.

District officials have hinted at revealing a new operator for the Gentilly high school this month. A decision about Capdau will likely be made later in the year.

KIPP’s board, the New Beginnings board and the Orleans Parish School Board all have separate meetings scheduled for Thursday.

Update: This story was updated after publication with additional comment from KIPP New Orleans. 

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...