Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

KIPP New Orleans Schools will run John F. Kennedy High School next school year in the wake of a graduation scandal that left half the Gentilly charter high school’s senior class ineligible for diplomas and many frantically spending the summer trying to earn missing credits, the NOLA Public Schools district announced via email Thursday. 

“As a district team, we have engaged with students, families, alumni, and other stakeholders to hear their feedback on adopting a new operator for the historic Gentilly high school,” district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in the announcement. “In light of recent events at John K. Kennedy High School, I made this decision expeditiously to ensure students knew their future with the school.”

KIPP’s Chief Executive Officer Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said the charter network was grateful for the opportunity.

Nearly 70 of those Kennedy students walked across the stage at their May graduation ceremony, only to learn in June they did not meet the requirements for a state diploma due to admitted malfeasance by the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, Kennedy’s charter group. 

KIPP expressed interested in running Kennedy in a July letter to Lewis, sent one week after New Beginnings voted to surrender its charter for the high school. 

KIPP has since met with Kennedy staff, parents, students and alumni, according to a network spokesman. The district inquired with other charter operators but KIPP was the only one interested in taking on Kennedy. New Orleans became an all-charter city over the summer. 

The New Orleans regional KIPP office runs seven elementary and high schools across the city. KIPP is a national organization whose regional offices run hundreds of schools across the country. The charter group is also interested in taking over New Beginnings’ elementary school, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School. Lewis’ announcement didn’t address a new operator for Capdau.

The district’s announcement said KIPP has “submitted strong plans for academic turnaround, staff transition and engagement with parents, families, students and alumni throughout the transition process.”

“My goal has and continues to be to ensure that the students and families at JFK are well served today and for years to come. I have no doubt that KIPP New Orleans will advance the academic performance of JFK to the next level for our students and families,” Lewis was quoted as saying in the announcement. “KIPP New Orleans’ high academic standing, strong focus on college-preparatory education, and commitment to the legacy of our city’s high schools has made them the best choice for the children who are, and will be, attending JFK High School.”

KIPP’s local network includes one school — KIPP Renaissance which was recently renamed Frederick A. Douglass High School — that was rated a B by the Louisiana Department of Education in 2018. It has five C rated schools and one D rated school.

Kennedy was most recently rated a C. 

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation has been under intense scrutiny since a former employee alleged Kennedy employees had improperly changed students’ grades. Those allegations, first reported by The Lens in March, led to internal, district and state investigations. 

The charter group’s CEO was placed on paid leave and later resigned. Five Kennedy administrators, including Principal Brian Gibson, also lost their jobs. 

In mid-July, as the district appeared close to starting the process of revoking Kennedy’s charter, New Beginnings voted to surrender the charter contracts for Kennedy and Capdau effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Lewis has called for a criminal investigation at the troubled high school and the district has repeatedly cited the school for violations of policy and contractual obligations. He also called for a citywide audit of high school students’ transcripts and created a new position to oversee high school accountability. 

Meanwhile, New Beginnings is facing a lawsuit from a student who says she was encouraged to take courses at home to graduate a year early, only to learn later that the courses didn’t count. Several students say they lost scholarship opportunities because they couldn’t provide transcripts to their colleges by varying spring and summer deadlines. 

As of late July, 24 of the 53 students who took summer courses had been approved by the Louisiana Department of Education for diplomas. This week, that number had risen to 40, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

New Beginnings officials have repeatedly said they would provide students with makeup opportunities and resources to meet state requirements for a diploma. Some students had to return to school this month because they couldn’t meet requirements within the summer. 

A state report revealed the school improperly allowed students to take remedial courses — which are reserved for students who failed a course. Kennedy let students take them as initial courses. Others took online courses without the supervision of a teacher and the school appeared to improperly count online courses taken at home toward required classroom time. 

A report of New Beginnings’ internal investigation — performed by a team of contracted attorneys — is not being released due to a request from law enforcement agencies, WWLTV reported last month

The district will work with both charter organizations throughout this school year, including an “additional engagement even” for parents and families to meet with KIPP officials in the next few weeks, the announcement said.

The Orleans Parish School Board and charter boards of New Beginnings and KIPP New Orleans each have scheduled their monthly board meetings for Thursday night.

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

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...