New Beginnings Schools Foundation CEO Kevin George provides an update on John F. Kennedy High School's class of 2019 to the charter board on Sept. 12, 2019. Board chair Raphael Gang, left, listens to his report. Nearly half the class experienced graduation problems due to what one charter official called employee "malfeasance." New Beginnings is working with students to help them finish state diploma requirements. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

InspireNOLA Charter Schools is the sole charter group interested in running Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, one of two schools the New Beginnings Schools Foundation voted to surrender at the end of this school year after a scandal involving its other school, John F. Kennedy High School.

New Beginnings CEO Kevin George told charter board members the news at a board meeting Tuesday night. Staff from InspireNOLA, which runs seven charter schools and one “contract school,” will meet with Capdau students and families Wednesday. The D-rated school enrolls 707 elementary students on St. Roch Avenue. George said InspireNOLA was the only charter group that responded to the NOLA Public Schools district’s inquiry. 

According to reports by the state and the NOLA Public Schools district, mismanagement at Kennedy led to about half of the 2019 senior class being unable to graduate on time, though many were initially led to believe they had successfully completed high school. 

Last spring — as the problems at the school began to come to light — the charter group’s CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams resigned and five Kennedy administrators left. Over the summer, dozens of students scrambled to complete make-up courses which prompted a lawsuit from students who said they were harmed or lost scholarship opportunities. In mid-July, New Beginnings voted to surrender Kennedy and Capdau at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Kennedy was quickly assigned to KIPP New Orleans, but Capdau families were left waiting until this week. 

As students and staff finish out the year with soon-to-shutter New Beginnings, the network is working on retaining staff with improved health care coverage and retention bonuses for employees — at winter break and again in the spring — if they stay through the end of the school year. 

At Tuesday night’s meeting, George also said that seven students from Kennedy’s class of 2019 are still working toward a diploma. The school cannot locate six other seniors from last year, George said. One month after 155 students crossed the stage at their May graduation ceremony, nearly half of them learned they hadn’t been eligible for diplomas. 

The work at Kennedy is far from over, George said, filling the board in on the class of 2020.

George said 68 of the Gentilly high school’s approximately 135 current seniors need to make up credits to graduate on time this spring. He said about 50 of those students are regularly attending remedial courses provided by the school. 

George said the network is almost done reviewing sophomore and junior transcripts too. Those students would have attended under Blouin-Williams’ administration. 

“These are the most scrutinized seniors in America,” George said.

“We’re being very tedious and granular about this,” he said. “We had to because it was not done in the past.”

Newly hired Director of Student Services Julie Conton said she’s revamping special education services at the network’s two schools. The board approved two contracts with third-party special education service providers and evaluators at the meeting. 

At Kennedy, Conton said she’s ensured students with special education needs are on the diploma track they wanted. Louisiana offers several types of state diplomas, as well as a certificate of achievement for students with disabilities who complete at least 12 years of school but don’t necessarily meet diploma requirements. Conton said the certificate can limit students’ post-secondary options. 

She said they’ve revised a handful of students’ diploma goals after comprehensive conversations with families and fewer students are now seeking the certificate. 

“Only one of our students is on a certificate of achievement pathway,” Conton said. “For some of our students it will put them behind a year, but that was a conscious choice.”

Conton said Kennedy staff explained that completing a diploma could take extra time and that those students may attend The NET alternative school next year. 

New Schools for New Orleans, a local nonprofit, is giving New Beginnings up to $124,000 in funding for retention bonuses for academic faculty, George said. New Beginnings will match that bonus and extend it to any school-based and central office staff who aren’t covered, board president Raphael Gang said. 

New Beginnings also purchased a better health insurance plan for employees this year and is splitting a larger share of the cost. 

Even though new charter groups are taking over the schools, teachers and staff will have to reapply for their jobs as part of the annual shifting charter landscape. Gang said the new groups will likely start working with teachers mid-year, potentially making preliminary offers before winter break.

At the end of the meeting, Gang said it was unfortunate that some staff who left over the summer were caught up with the rest of what had happened at Kennedy, mentioning former Chief Financial Officer Terri Vincent.

“Terri was in no way involved in the malfeasance or other concerns we encountered over the last eight months,” he said, commending her work in the financial department.

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...