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

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s promised citywide audit of high school academic records will cover about 5 percent of high school students, The Lens confirmed Tuesday. 

Lewis announced the citywide audit in June, shortly after the announcement that irregularities identified in the records of John F. Kennedy High School students would result in half the Gentilly school’s 2019 class being unable to graduate on time. 

“We cannot allow this travesty to happen again,” Lewis said in June when he announced the probe. “We will audit student records at every high school, working with experts in the field to help us design high quality auditing tools.”

This week, the district provided The Lens with more details about the scope of the audit. Officials plan to “initially” examine 25 student files at each New Orleans high school it oversees. Ten of those will be the academic records of senior students and the rest will be divided among freshmen, sophomores and juniors. 

The district oversees 24 charter high schools and two so-called “contract” high schools. They enrolled about 12,600 students last year, according to state data. By reviewing 25 student files per school, NOLA Public Schools officials will cover 650 students, or 5 percent of about 12,600 high school students enrolled in district-overseen schools across the city. 

Still unclear is the time period the audit will cover. The district did not respond to a question about whether the review would include past years, including the class of 2019 at high schools other than Kennedy.

But at an Orleans Parish School Board meeting last month, Lewis asserted that “what happened at JFK is not, I repeat not, a widespread problem.” District officials did not respond to a question asking how he could know that. 

Kathleen Padian, the district’s former deputy superintendent, now works as a partner at TenSquare LLC, the consulting group that uncovered many of the problems at Kennedy. She reviewed the district’s newly developed “audit tool,” obtained by The Lens, that it plans to use for the review. 

Padian said she was worried about the number of student files the district plans to audit and the narrow scope of the audit tool.

“I have a large number of concerns,” she said. “Honestly, there are at least 15 questions I would ask.”

The audit tool focuses on the number of credits students have earned and whether the student is on track for the type of diploma they are seeking. But Padian said there are several additional elements the district should be reviewing to ensure students are on track to graduate. 

“Hopefully, of the five students they pick, at least one will have transferred from another school at some point,” Padian said. “Because we found at Kennedy we almost never had the hard copy backup of a transfer transcript.”

She also suggested the district review a percentage of students at each school, rather than a set number, because high school enrollment across the city varies by hundreds of students.

The problems at Kennedy, first alleged by a former employee and eventually fleshed out by Padian’s company, resulted in some students having to go to summer school and others having to return for an additional year in high school. Many of the affected students didn’t learn they would need additional credits until June, a month after they had been allowed to walk at the school’s graduation ceremony.  

The fallout led to Lewis’ call for a citywide audit. Shortly thereafter the district began advertising for a new position — Assistant Director of High School Accountability. They hired Max Daigh for that position last week. 

The audit consists of a “credit accumulation review.” It includes a check of how many credits a student has, whether they’ve earned those credits through traditional or remedial courses — one of the issues at the center of the Kennedy graduation scandal — and which of several types of state diplomas they are seeking. Students must also have a state-required “Individualized Graduation Plan” that is signed by their parent, counselor and student themselves. According to a statement from the district, the audit will also review “student information systems” in order to “ensure schools are tracking student credit accumulation and graduation requirements accurately.”

In response to The Lens’ questions, District Communications Director Tania Dall provided written statements, attributed to the district, that further described the process. 

 “After the compliance review, we provide the summary of findings and notes to the school via their site visit summary. As our Assistant Director has now come onboard, he will begin to debrief with our schools discussing findings and next steps.”

Further review

Padian said the credit review is a good place to start, but there’s more the district needs to examine. 

“It doesn’t appear that anyone ever looked at the pupil progression plan for Kennedy and matched it up for what was being offered to students,” she said. 

A pupil progression plan describes what students need to advance from grade to grade based on state academic standards. The state provides a template for schools and every district must submit a board-approved plan to the state on a yearly basis. In a charter school, the nonprofit charter governing board — rather than a citywide elected body like the Orleans Parish School Board — approves the plan.

Padian said NOLA Public Schools, as the charter authorizer, should be closely examining all charter schools’ plans.

“That’s where I would start,” Padian said. “The pupil progression plan for Kennedy was in no way, shape or form in compliance.”

She said the district should also review course offerings and ensure that schools are properly taking attendance, both of which were issues at Kennedy. 

“Each grade level should have an English, a math, a social studies and science,” Padian said, noting she was just covering the basics. “And if you looked at a master schedule and didn’t see that, that should be a red flag.”

Padian said last spring Kennedy employees must have noticed seniors lacked a freshman-level science course because it was never offered at the school. (A state report on Kennedy, released in July, confirmed that students did not have access to a biology course in the 2017-2018 school year.)

“That’s when the staff started scrambling and offering Gradpoint,” she said. 

That was the program the school used for online remedial classes, intended primarily to make up courses they had previously taken and failed. The state report found that a number of students were assigned Gradpoint coursework for classes they had not previously taken. 

“It was the administrators’ problem. It’s not the students fault,” Padian said. “They weren’t even offered the opportunity.”

She said the state’s expansion of diploma offerings — including a “university”-track diploma and a “tech”-track diploma — has been good for students, but has required extra work for administrators ensuring students meet a variety of graduation requirements. 

“I’m not sure every school has someone who can interpret that.”

Last fall, the district awarded the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, Kennedy’s governing nonprofit, a five-year charter renewal for the school. (In the wake of the graduation scandal, the network opted to surrender the Kennedy charter, as well as the charter it holds for Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, after the end of this school year.) Padian questions whether district officials reviewed course offerings or the pupil progression plan. 

“When they had their renewal review there is no way anyone ever looked at that,” she said. “You would have noticed in some cases that students who got to their senior year didn’t have a certain course because they were never even offered in the master schedule.”

The district’s charter renewal guidelines do not say that such a review is required. 

In July, The Lens analyzed records the district used to evaluate Kennedy last year — nothing appeared to examine course offerings or graduation eligibility. The district did not immediately respond to an email inquiring whether Kennedy’s progression plan was reviewed last year. 

An annual site-visit form, used by the district to evaluate charter schools, measures 13 compliance areas. Six are related to special education files. Those were in order at Kennedy last fall. Four, related to whether a school has certain required information posted on its walls, were marked “in compliance.”

Padian said in her time at the district, when several charter schools operated under the district’s umbrella, a central office employee reviewed all seniors’ graduation eligibility. Since then, however, nearly all charter schools in the city have legally become their own districts, or what the state calls “local education agencies.” Only a few start-up charters are currently under the NOLA Public Schools district’s LEA. 

The district did not immediately respond to a question asking if someone at the central office still completes the type of graduation eligibility reviews that Padian described. 

Padian said the audit tool is a step in the right direction, but hopes the district starts paying closer attention to course offerings, attendance and pupil progression plans. 

“A lot of these things, I’m going to assume the person doing the auditing knows, but I don’t see it on that document.”

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...