NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. unveiled the results of investigations into two instances of alleged grade fixing at John F. Kennedy High School on Thursday. But Lewis’ announcement, delivered during his report to Orleans Parish School Board members at their monthly meeting, along with a five-page final report of the Kennedy investigation, seemed to barely scratch the surface of what went wrong at the Gentilly high school.
After confirming that 10 John F. Kennedy High School students’ Algebra III grades were inflated — allegations first reported by The Lens in March — the district’s investigation into whether those changes were improper was “ultimately inconclusive,” he said.
The district tried to verify the grades for the first and second quarters of the 2018-2019 school year. According to the report, the teacher’s grade book matched the altered grades in the school’s digital grading system, but in the first quarter, they did not match signed grade verification forms she had filled out. In the second quarter, the district could not obtain those verification forms. The district could not determine a valid reason for the changes it could confirm. And officials were unable to reach the teacher — who left the school in January for personal reasons — for an explanation.
He quickly pivoted to a second incident of alleged grade changing that uncovered myriad problems for the senior class of 178 students.
“A second grade change scheme, which was reported to OPSB in May, is a different story,” he said.
Those actions, Lewis said, resulted in transcript delays for seniors and some seniors had to take additional courses and exams to qualify for graduation.
But what the district describes as the “second alleged grade change scheme” in its five-page final report went much deeper than a handful of altered grades and the three-paragraph description of it in the report. After administrative fallout from the handful of spring grade changes, damning information about the state of the senior class was uncovered by a contractor. But much of that information, uncovered in May, wouldn’t be revealed until June.
Those findings revealed more than half the senior had been ineligible to graduate, including 69 students who had participated in the May 17 graduation ceremony.
Lewis said his team expanded its review, informed the Louisiana Department of Education and issued a warning to the charter group in early June. In the coming weeks his team decided to revoke both charters held by Kennedy’s operator — the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — one for Kennedy and another for Pierre A. Capdau Charter school, an elementary school.
“Almost simultaneously,” he said, the charter group voted to surrender them at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
“This outcome was an appropriate reaction and was accepted due to the fact that the staff who was involved in the noncompliance issue were no longer with the organization,” he said, noting the district could direct its resources to helping the class of 2019 rather than finding a new charter to run the school on short notice.
“Right now, 143 students have been approved for graduation, meaning that over 90% of the original cohort of students who walked across stage have now received diplomas,” New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang said Thursday. “We are continuing to reach out to the remaining students and we will continue to work with NOLA Public Schools to ensure that all of our students receive the education that they deserve.”
Notably missing from the district’s five-page report is a resolution to allegations, first reported by WWL-TV, that former New Beginnings CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams fixed a lucrative bus contract by altering board minutes.
“The allegation has not been confirmed to date,” Lewis said, adding that law enforcement officials are conducting a separate inquiry into New Beginnings and Kennedy. “While our review is complete given our authority and responsibilities, it should be mentioned the state inspector general is still in the process of conducting its own investigation.”
Runell King, then a New Beginnings employee, 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. He 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.
The allegedly inflated grades — many changed from failing to passing — occurred in an Algebra III class taught by Gloria Love and were first reported by The Lens in March. The article included an email Love sent to New Beginnings staff challenging the accuracy of her students grades that prompted NOLA Public Schools to try to contact Love. In its final report, the district says it was unable to contact Love.
The Lens interviewed Blouin-Williams and human resources director Michael Washington who were in possession of Love’s gradebook, who insisted that the changes were due 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. King identified a number of problems with the explanation that they were unable to explain at the time.
But the district’s final report states the employees verified Love’s grade book aligned with the “adjusted/modified grades as reported in PowerSchool, but after additional documentation was reviewed, OPSB was unable to verify the reason for the grade changes.”
‘The second alleged grade change scheme’
NOLA Public Schools’ brief report offers few details about what it refers to simply as ”the second alleged grade change scheme,” which appears to refer to a host of problems — including but not limited to grade changes — that resulted in half the 2019 senior class being unable to graduate on time. However, much of that has already been made public.
On April 1, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which oversees Kennedy and one elementary school, suspended Blouin-Williams and hired a law firm to investigate King’s allegations.
Within a matter of days, the firm apparently reached the conclusion that the charges were untrue, though it’s not clear how the attorneys came to that finding or how it was reached so quickly.
Adams and Reese did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
While Blouin-Williams was out, New Beginnings hired TenSquare LLC to perform her duties.
TenSquare Partner Kathy Padian said her team was initially working on administrative duties. But, when Kennedy’s counselor quit on April 30, Padian said it became their responsibility to ensure seniors and other students had what they needed at Kennedy.
“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. Emails show debates about grade point average and honors, such as who the valedictorian should be, continued to graduation day and beyond. 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 also identified as having improperly changed grades, leading to their terminations, according to the document. 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.”
In spite of the firings, the report from the district does not say who or what was ultimately at fault for the issues at Kennedy, nor does it reach a conclusion as to how things were allowed to go on for so long, affecting so many students.
Lewis said the district is still keeping a close eye on Kennedy. The charter group must submit all contracts and purchases over $10,000.
The network still has a so-called level two notice of non-compliance warning open, Lewis said.
Lewis said the district accountability team was still working with the school and other high schools across the city. “What happened at JFK is not, I repeat not, a widespread problem.”
Still, Lewis has called for an audit of all high school transcripts citywide and the district is using new evaluation procedures for high school charter renewals.
Lewis said about a dozen students from Kennedy’s class of 2019 are still working toward diplomas.