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

The initial allegations of suspicious grade changes that set off a series of investigations into John F. Kennedy High School were ruled untrue by a law firm hired by Kennedy’s governing board, according to documents obtained by The Lens. 

It’s unclear from the documents how they reached that conclusion, and how they closed that first investigation so quickly. But in an interview, the president of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the network that runs Kennedy, suggested that finding may no longer be valid. 

On April 10, less than 10 days after law firm Adams and Reese was hired to investigate the claim, according to public documents, the firm told NOLA Public Schools employees it agreed with an earlier finding by the district and New Beginnings: The inflated grades in an Algebra III class identified by former New Beginnings employee Runell King were innocuous. 

Another NOLA Public Schools district document unrelated to the Adams and Reese investigation indicates that a law enforcement official alleged that King himself changed students’ grades. 

King first pointed out the grade changes to New Beginnings administrators last winter. He was suspended and fired soon after, in part, according to then-New Beginnings CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, for failing to support his allegations. King said he believed his firing was retaliatory. 

New Beginnings and the school district concluded at the time that the changes were related to an error in how the grades were weighted. In a weighted system, things like homework, testing, attendance and class participation each count for a certain portion of a students grades. 

Later, Adams and Reese said they agreed, according to a school district document. 

The documents obtained by The Lens do not include a detailed explanation of Adams and Reese’s findings. The revelation that the firm closed out the Algebra III grade-changing investigation was contained in a detailed timeline of events at Kennedy compiled by a NOLA Public Schools district employee. District officials did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

The Lens first reported the allegations in March. In interviews at the time, King identified several problems with that explanation. First, only some students’ grades had been changed. King said a weighting correction would have changed all their grades. Second, red marks in the digital grade records indicated that the grades were changed individually, through a manual override. Third, he said he found evidence that someone, using former employees’ credentials, had accessed the grading system around the time he believed the grade-fixing occurred. 

In an email on Thursday,  King stood by his claims from March. He questioned conclusions reached by a firm paid by New Beginnings, as well as New Beginnings’ use of Adams and Reese for the probe. The firm formerly employed New Beginnings’ attorney Michelle Craig. 

“This relationship can be compared to ‘the police investigating themselves,’ ” King wrote in an email. 

Adams and Reese did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang suggested to The Lens in a phone interview that the situation may have changed since the attorneys briefed NOLA Public Schools employees. 

“The information provided by NOLA Public Schools, while accurate at the time, does not represent the most up to date accounting of events that have transpired,” Gang said. 

Regarding King’s comment about Craig and Adams and Reese, he said, “We won’t dignify baseless rumors being made by the very individuals who were actively involved in harming our students. If someone would like to make an allegation that includes actual evidence and is not simply an attempt to shirk responsibility for their own illegal and harmful actions, my email has been and continues to be on our website.”

Craig did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. 

King’s allegations triggered a somewhat happenstance series of events that eventually uncovered much bigger issues at Kennedy. The problems at the school led to more than half the senior class learning they were ineligible to graduate. Dozens of them learned that a month after they were allowed to walk across the stage at commencement. 

Shortly after The Lens published its first story, the New Beginnings board suspended Blouin-Williams. (She later resigned.) In her absence, the board hired consulting firm TenSquare, LLC to manage the network. 

TenSquare Partner Kathy Padian, who runs the local office, said when Kennedy’s high school counselor resigned, her team started to work at the high school. 

“We quickly realized the graduation information was not in good shape,” she said in an interview Thursday. 

Though she said they encountered initial pushback from the high school administration, eventually they were granted access to online records. 

“We found a lot of problems — immediately,” she said. 

Working with Kennedy staff, TenSquare employees soon identified a large number of problems with Kennedy students’ records, including course credit inaccuracies and widespread misuse of online remedial courses. In addition, though Adams and Reese apparently did not find King’s allegations credible, TenSquare identified other cases in which students’ grades had been inappropriately changed.

“It was really surprising to see, there had been a lot of consultants working at New Beginnings and no one ever raised a red flag about any of this,” she said. 

In notes from what an unattributed school district memo says was a June 12 conversation with a criminal investigator from the State Office of Inspector General, King himself was alleged to have changed students’ grades at some point, which King denied saying he “at no point changed any grades in the system to provide students with an unfair academic advantage.” 

Five other administrators were likewise identified as having improperly changed grades, leading to their terminations. That presumably refers to the five administrators who lost their jobs at the end of May. At the time, officials provided no explanation for those firings beyond “strong evidence of improper conduct.” 

According to the NOLA Public Schools timeline, the newly discovered grade changes led New Beginnings to go back to Adams and Reese asking the firm to reopen an investigation into the school. 

That investigation, if complete, has not been released. New Beginnings officials have offered few comments on it, likely due to other ongoing inquiries by law enforcement and the NOLA Public Schools district, not to mention a class-action lawsuit filed by Kennedy students and their families. 

“We look forward to the day when we are able to share what we have learned and provide transparency to families and the public at large,” Gang 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...