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

The lawyer who filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against John F. Kennedy High School’s governing charter network and the Orleans Parish and state school boards is seeking to expand  the suit — from about half of the 2019 class to all 2019 seniors and all current Kennedy students. 

Attorney Suzette Bagneris, who first represented one family — a Kennedy student who claimed that her failure to graduate this year resulted from mismanagement — when the suit was filed, this week filed an amended complaint, adding nine more former Kennedy students and nine of their parents as named plaintiffs. And while the original suit sought class-action status on behalf of other students who were found ineligible to graduate this year — 92 of 178 students —the proposed class covered in Bagneris’ amended complaint includes the entire class of 2019, plus the classes of 2020 through 2023.

“We believe the gross mismanagement has affected all its students adversely.”—Suzette Bagneris, plaintiffs’ attorney

Bagneris also added the Louisiana Department of Education as a defendant in the case. The other defendants are the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — Kennedy’s charter network — the Orleans Parish School Board, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and TenSquare, LLC. TenSquare is a consulting firm that worked as a New Beginnings contractor earlier this year. 

“We believe the gross mismanagement has affected all its students adversely,” Bagneris said of Kennedy. 

The graduation problems that led to half of Kennedy’s class of 2019 being unable to graduate — such as lacking credits due to poor scheduling and being allowed to take online courses that they later learned didn’t count — could affect younger students too, Bagneris said. She noted that some of the seniors’ problems occurred before their senior year. She said she has reason to believe the issues are “pervasive” among underclassmen. 

“Some of the students took a half-credit of chemistry and the next semester they were placed in PE classes,” rather than completing their required science coursework, she said. “It was never caught.” 

“Those are the kinds of things that make us realize that this goes way deeper than the senior class.”

The lawsuit cites multiple examples of students who were led to believe they had graduated when they walked across the stage at their commencement mid-May. It wasn’t until a month after the ceremony that school officials revealed how many students in the class were not eligible for state diplomas. The students found to be ineligible  — the school first said 87 but later revised the number to 92 — included about 70 who’d been allowed to walk at the graduation ceremony. 

Some students have said they’ve lost scholarship opportunities, the ability to apply for financial aid and have had trouble enrolling in college. 

Kennedy senior Dwight Crenshaw believes the school miscalculated grade point averages. There is evidence that administrators scrambled to calculate GPAs leading up to and including the day of graduation, according to emails obtained by The Lens. Crenshaw, who said he’d been on track to be the class of 2019 salutatorian, wound up being ranked fourth in his class. His grandmother thinks that caused him to lose out on scholarship money. 

Daniels’ daughter, a junior last year, alleges that Kennedy staff told her she could graduate a year early if she took online classes at home. After doing the online coursework throughout the 2018-2019 school year, she learned that it would not count because it was not overseen by a certified teacher, according to the lawsuit. 

Lawsuit expands

Bagneris said one reason she is expanding the proposed class to include current students is recent evidence that those students’ records may have some of the same problems as the class of 2019. Many 2019 seniors spent the summer unable to access their transcripts due to ongoing reviews by New Beginnings staff and the state.  

Bagneris said some younger students who have attempted to transfer out of Kennedy have faced a similar issue. 

“Those are the kinds of things that make us realize that this goes way deeper than the senior class.”—Suzette Bagneris, plaintiffs’ attorney

“Well I know for example, there were many of the younger students whose parents were attempting to transfer them,” Bagneris said. “Their transcripts were also not being released in a timely manner for them to transfer.”

Moreover, Bagneris said, some of this year’s seniors had transcript irregularities from classes they took before the past year. A special education student who attended Kennedy reported a similar problem to The Lens. He said a class he took during the 2017-2018 school year was flagged in the school’s recent internal review of senior transcripts and was part of what led to the finding that he needed additional credits to graduate. That, he said, should call into question the status of the previous class of students who would have graduated last spring. 

“The deficiencies in their transcripts didn’t just begin in senior year,” Bagneris said. “Clearly this was a problem that dips back to many years and was affecting many students, not just seniors.”

“Clearly this was a problem that dips back to many years and was affecting many students, not just seniors.”—Suzette Bagneris, plaintiffs’ attorney

In its report, the state department of education found the school lacked foundational courses.

“During the LDOE review, it was evident not all JFK students were enrolled in the appropriate foundational skills courses. For instance, several students did not have an eligible health education credit that met graduation requirements or access to a biology course in 2017-2018,” the report stated.

Asked whether younger students experienced problems similar to the class of 2019, New Beginnings’ board president Raphael Gang said the network could not comment on ongoing litigation. 

“New Beginnings is committed to providing a high quality education for our families and we are confident that our team will deliver on that promise.”—Raphael Gang, New Beginnings’ board president

“Our new CEO, Kevin George, and his team are working tirelessly to ensure that every student who attends John F. Kennedy has what they need to be successful in our final year of operating the school,” Gang wrote in an email. “New Beginnings is committed to providing a high quality education for our families and we are confident that our team will deliver on that promise.” 

The judge presiding over the case has yet to rule on whether to certify it as a class-action.

Bagneris added the Department of Education as a defendant in the suit following a recent hearing on an emergency motion she filed to force the school to release all outstanding senior transcripts. 

At the Aug. 6 hearing, the New Beginnings and the Orleans Parish School Board pointed at the Louisiana Department of Education for holding up the transcripts. A Department of Education employee said they couldn’t release transcripts without more information from New Beginnings. The employee said the state was doing a more thorough review in light of the problems it had found at the school. Civil District Court Judge Paulette Irons said she couldn’t order the department to release the transcripts because it was not named in Bagneris’ original complaint. 

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

Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn declined to comment on this story, citing the ongoing litigation. 

Trouble at Kennedy

The problems at Kennedy were discovered after a former administrator reported allegations of suspicious grade changes at the charter high school in March. That led in part to New Beginnings’ decision to suspend CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams and hire a law firm to investigate. The state and NOLA Public Schools opened investigations as well. 

Blouin-Williams later resigned. A few weeks later, the charter group announced that five Kennedy administrators were “no longer employees.”

The state’s investigation revealed Kennedy had improperly used online remedial courses — reserved for students who have already failed a course — for students taking classes for the first time. The state also found problems with special education services at the school. 

Kennedy’s internal investigation may not be released anytime soon. After NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. called for a criminal investigation into Kennedy, New Beginnings declined a request for a copy of the law firm’s findings, citing interest from “other agencies” and a concern that releasing the report could “obstruct justice,” WWL-TV reported last month. The Lens filed a request for a copy of the investigation early this month. As of Thursday, New Beginnings had not responded to that request. 

At a school board meeting last week NOLA Public Schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district’s report would be released “soon.” After the graduation scandal grew over the summer, Lewis called for a citywide audit of high school students’ records and created a central office position dedicated to that task. 

In mid-July, the New Beginnings board voted to surrender its charter for Kennedy, as well as its charter for elementary school Pierre A. Capdau effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. KIPP New Orleans will take over Kennedy, Lewis announced last week. No announcement has been made regarding Capdau. 

Last week, Lewis updated the Orleans Parish School Board on the Kennedy students who hadn’t qualified for diplomas this year. 

He said 40 Kennedy students had met graduation requirements over the summer. Nine who didn’t had returned to local high schools, including three who returned to Kennedy. Another group are seeking graduation waivers from the state, which they are only eligible for if they’re shy of graduation by one credit or less. Eight of them were granted waivers last week

“That leaves 29 students who must complete various requirements to be eligible for graduation,” Lewis 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...