At a New Beginnings board meeting on Thursday, CEO Kevin George, right, tells board members that John F. Kennedy High School is working to ensure that the 2020 senior class will graduate on time. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

After about half the students in John F. Kennedy High School’s 2019 senior class were unable to graduate on time due to what one official called employee “malfeasance,” the school is taking steps to avoid a repeat in 2020, the head of the charter network that operates the school said on Thursday.   

Nearly 60 John F. Kennedy High School seniors in the class of 2020 have enrolled in credit recovery courses to ensure they can graduate on time this spring, New Beginnings Schools Foundation CEO Kevin George told the network’s governing board. 

George said the network has started an after-school program to help students who have failed a class over the last three years. 

Problems discovered at the school, including the inappropriate use of online credit recovery courses, rendered many 2019 seniors’ transcripts inaccurate or incomplete. Four months after Kennedy’s graduation ceremony, some 2019 seniors are still completing state diploma requirements with the help of the network.

On Thursday, George said he believes the issues found at Kennedy are not unique to the Gentilly charter high school. 

It’s not like John F. Kennedy is the only school out there that had some transcript issues.

New Beginnings Schools Foundation CEO Kevin George

“I think this saga peeled back a lot of layers in the city, to be frank,” George said when asked about work to ensure that transfer students’ transcripts were accurate. “So yes, we have had to clean up transcripts from other schools.”

“It’s not like John F. Kennedy is the only school out there that had some transcript issues,” he said. 

The scandal at Kennedy led NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. to call for a citywide audit of high school student records.

On Friday morning, a spokeswoman for the NOLA Public Schools said the district was working on a response to George’s remarks. 

Most 2019 seniors now cleared for diplomas

In March, a former employee alleged students’ grades were being inappropriately inflated.  Soon after the grade-changing allegations went public, CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams was placed on leave and the network began an investigation. She later resigned. 

The board hired a contractor, TenSquare, LLC, to help manage the three-school network in Blouin-Williams’ absence. Working with staff, TenSquare discovered widespread irregularities in students’ records. By May, the scope of those irregularities had become clearer. And late that month, the network announced that five administrators at the high school were “no longer employees” and since then two network administrators have also left the network. 

NOLA Public Schools and the Louisiana Department of Education also opened investigations. 

Of the three, only the Department of Education has released a written report thus far. That report found serious inadequacies with the high school’s course offerings, special education services and inappropriate use of remedial courses.

This summer, in addition to calling for a criminal investigation, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced a citywide audit of high school transcripts. The district is searching for a director of high school accountability to lead that effort. Meanwhile, the district has added new items to its annual high school reviews and this week the district and state held a training for high school leaders and counselors. 

Of the 178 seniors in Kennedy’s 2019 class, George said 141 students have been cleared for diplomas. Six special education students are still awaiting final clearance. Four students are still working on makeup work and eight have returned to local high schools. Ten students did not meet requirements over the summer. Two students have met all credit requirements but are lacking final state exams. The school has not been able to reach seven students who did not complete graduation requirements.

The network didn’t make a final determination about which students were ineligible for diplomas until about a month after the May graduation ceremony. Of about 90 who were found to be short of state requirements, 69 had been allowed to walk at the ceremony. 

Board member Kim Ramsey asked that George find out whether the seven students that the school has since been unable to reach were among those who participated at the ceremony. She said she worried that they may still think that they had graduated. 

Preparing for spring 2020

The school is ensuring that the class of 2020 is ready to graduate, George said on Thursday. 

He said all but 10 of the 68 seniors that need to take after-school credit recovery courses to graduate on time in 2020 have signed up for them. Of the 58 students who have signed up, 31 need to recover credit in two or more classes, George said. 

“We’re focused on seniors,” George told the board, indicating the after-school credit recovery program may open to younger students in the future. “We are on point about what needs to happen in credit recovery. We have a state-approved system.” 

Some students from last year’s senior class who were put into credit recover over the summer took the wrong courses, a state Department of Education employee said last month during a hearing in a lawsuit filed by a group of students and their families over the 2019 graduation problems. 

It is an understatement to say it is an excruciating process.

New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang

But George said issues experienced during the summer have since been ironed out. 

George also said New Schools for New Orleans — a nonprofit group that provides support services to New Orleans schools — is providing four counselors to help work through transcripts and verify their accuracy. New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang said the extra help is much appreciated. 

“This fixing of transcripts — it is an understatement to say it is an excruciating process,” Gang said.

George said he’s been in talks with KIPP New Orleans, the charter network that will take over Kennedy next summer. The two organizations are hoping to sign an agreement soon, he said, allowing KIPP to provide administrative assistance at the school. 

“What we feel like would be the biggest support of our school would be coaching support of our administrative team,” George said. 

Along with the additional work associated with recovery courses and preparing for the shutdown and transfer to KIPP, Kennedy is working on filling vacant teaching positions. A special education teacher and Algebra I teacher have recently resigned. The school currently has 620 students.

George also said that NOLA Public Schools district employees will be visiting Kennedy on Oct. 1 as part of an annual review.

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...