In a way, Dwayne Crenshaw was one of the lucky members of the John F. Kennedy High School class of 2019. Unlike dozens of other Kennedy students, when he walked at graduation last May, he actually graduated.
As a result of pervasive mismanagement, about half the members of the class of 2019 were found ineligible to graduate on time, though the majority didn’t find that out until about a month after the graduation ceremony. More than half a year later, some are still trying to finish high school. Some finished, but months later than they had expected.
Some experienced a bit less disruption to their lives. They got their diplomas over the summer and, in many cases, just finished their first semester of college. Crenshaw is in that group.
That’s not to say he looks back fondly.
“I feel like I have completely washed my hands of the school. I do not affiliate myself with them,” he said of his high school. “They could have handled it more professionally and handled it with more empathy.”
Crenshaw had planned to attend North Carolina A&T State University in the fall. But he’s home in New Orleans, attending the University of New Orleans with in-state tuition assistance through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship.
He had worked to be at or near the top of his high school class, hoping to earn a college scholarship so as not to be a financial burden on his grandmother, Tanya Scott. But he believes miscalculated grade point averages may have inaccurately dropped him to fourth in his class rather than earning the title of salutatorian. He and Scott believe that caused him to miss out on scholarship opportunities. Attending school out-of-state would have cost too much money without them, he said.
Kennedy classmate Asia Stepter had likewise hoped to go to North Carolina A&T State University. But she said her financial aid decisions were delayed because her diploma was late due to a classwide transcript review. (Some Kennedy students were still waiting for diplomas mid-August when many colleges start classes.) Without the aid, Stepter said she had to stay in-state.
She attended Louisiana State University and said her first semester went well, other than starting classes a week late due to the delays.
“I’m fine with LSU. It ended up working out,” Stepter said. “I’m living on campus.”
Timeline of the Kennedy scandal
Problems at Kennedy surfaced last spring when a former employee alleged that administrators were inappropriately changing grades. Before the end of the school year, the charter group’s CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams was placed on leave and later resigned. Kennedy’s charter board, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, and the NOLA Public Schools district, which oversees Kennedy, launched investigations.
But the most damning details weren’t revealed until after the charter school’s May graduation. A week later, five Kennedy administrators left when the New Beginnings board received “strong evidence of improper conduct.”
One month after that, about half the students in the class learned they hadn’t been eligible to graduate, though many — including 69 who walked at graduation — were initially led to believe they had successfully completed high school.
Over the summer, dozens of students scrambled to complete make-up courses. That prompted a lawsuit from students who said they were harmed, missed financial aid or enrollment deadlines or lost scholarship opportunities. A state report found the school had improperly used credit recovery courses and concluded special education services at the school were inadequate.
In mid-July, New Beginnings voted to surrender both of its charters — for Kennedy and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Kennedy’s building was quickly assigned to KIPP New Orleans Schools, and eventually InspireNOLA was selected to run Capdau.
In August, state education Superintendent John White granted waivers to a small group of Kennedy students who were one credit or less away from graduation “due to administrative error on the part of John F. Kennedy High School.”
A months-long investigation from NOLA Public Schools was wrapped up in a slim five-page report in September. The report concluded that a review of the initial allegations was “ultimately inconclusive” but that a second grade changing incident revealed bigger problems at the school. New Beginnings has yet to release the results of its own investigation.
In late October, a judge dismissed the Orleans Parish School Board from the students’ lawsuit. Despite overseeing the charter school, the district argued it has nothing to do with the charter group’s student records. New Beginnings and the Louisiana Department of Education are still defendants.
A different outlook
When The Lens first interviewed Crenshaw and Scott in July, newly hired New Beginnings CEO Kevin George said the charter group was recalculating student grade point averages. Emails obtained by The Lens shortly after graduation show administrators were concerned about the accuracy of grade point averages up to and on the day of graduation.
Crenshaw’s grandmother said though he’s doing well in college, the family still wants answers from George.
“I spoke to him in July, they said they were working on them. And I called him last month but he never returned my phone call,” Scott said in a December interview. “I just want to know, what’s the solution for it? The children worked hard for that status. What are you going to do to right the wrong?”
Asked last week whether grades were still being recalculated, George wrote via email that he couldn’t comment citing pending litigation.
“They’re going to sweep that under the carpet like everything else. It’s unfair. It’s not right. It’s hurt a child,” Scott said. “Dwayne is different now. He says that all the time.”
We asked Crenshaw how the spring revelations and summer uncertainty affected him.
“This for instance taught me you can work so hard for something and still not get it,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be your fault. It can just be the way things are.”
In a summer interview when he expressed similar sentiments, his grandmother told him then that he couldn’t give up.
Crenshaw credits College Track, a non-profit that helps guide high school students through the college application process and transition to campus, with helping him finish strong and having the skills to navigate college.
Crenshaw said he’s enjoyed classes at UNO this fall and doesn’t look back to Kennedy much. Though the two things he’d like to see is an acknowledgement from the charter group and district superintendent and perhaps, if possible he said, financial assistance for him and his classmates’ college expenses.
“I didn’t feel like they made an effort to fix anything,” he said. “I haven’t even been apologized to from anybody and an apology goes a long way.”
Some students still working
New Beginnings officials have regularly provided updates on the number of class of 2019 students who have received their diplomas and those who are still working toward them. Responding to an inquiry from The Lens, George declined to provide updated numbers last week, again citing pending litigation. Nor did he provide the New Beginnings board a full accounting at its meeting last week.
However, in October, George told board members that seven Kennedy students were still working toward a diploma. He said the school could not locate six other seniors from last year.
George did tell board members at a meeting last week that some class of 2019 students returned recently to take end-of-course exams. He also said it seemed like the current class of students didn’t understand the ramifications of the state-required tests.
Some of the students who still need credits to earn their diplomas enrolled at other high schools, while some returned to Kennedy.
One of them is Tayler McClendon, a current senior, who spent months last school year doing work before and after school in an attempt to graduate a year early, something her mother said the school’s counselor encouraged her to do. But days before graduation, she said she found out those classes wouldn’t count because she didn’t take them in the presence of a certified teacher. McClendon is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against New Beginnings.
Her mother, Darnette Daniels, said her daughter is struggling back at the school she thought she’d graduated from last May. Daniels said via text that her daughter is seeing a therapist.
“She is back there but she’s not handling it well,” Daniels wrote in a text message.
TJ Jones aged out of the school but didn’t receive a diploma. TJ, who has bipolar disorder, was sent home to finish a semester of school while at Kennedy, which could violate federal special education law, a civil rights lawyer told The Lens in August.
“That was illegal for them to send him home, he’s got an IEP,” his mother, Nicole Jones, said, referring to his Individual Education Program which outlines education plans for students with disabilities.
Nicole Jones moved to St. Bernard Parish but said her son remained in Orleans Parish with a relative. She maintains that her son should have been eligible for school at Kennedy because he didn’t move with her.
“The school has never called back,” Nicole Jones said. “I guess because he made 19.”
George declined to comment on Jones’ standing.
“This is not his fault he didn’t get those credits,” Nicole Jones said “They should have made sure he got them.”
Last summer, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. called for a criminal investigation at the school and announced a citywide audit of high school student records. The Lens later confirmed that audit would cover about five percent of high school student files.
We asked NOLA Public Schools a host of questions about their new high school auditing program, what they were finding and whether they’d seen any trends in conducting the reviews thus far and what they were doing to ensure no other students experienced problems similar to Kennedy’s class of 2019.
In December, we received a two sentence statement in response. “NOLA Public Schools is currently in the process of auditing our high schools and reviewing data. We will share an update on our findings before the next phase of this work.”
New Beginnings will cease operations as a New Orleans school operator at the end of the school year, as it turns over its two charters to two other groups.
Class of 2019 graduate Semaj Allen got her diploma — in August, several months late — and is working in New Orleans.
“There’s not much I can say about it,” she said. “I believe that it’s right that they closed.”
She said the experience there was “discouraging” but she’s moved on.
The work at Kennedy appeared far from over earlier this fall. As of October, 68 of the Gentilly high school’s approximately 135 current seniors needed to make up credits to graduate on time this spring. At a meeting that month, George said about 50 of those students are regularly attending remedial courses provided by the school. The school was auditing all student transcripts at that time.
Class of 2020
At a board meeting last week, George said the school is closely tracking the class of 2020.
“We cannot have any missteps,” he said.
The school created a graduation tracker to monitor required classes, state end-of-course exams and whether any students must make up credit for failed classes, he said. In January, each student will learn if they’re on track to graduate on time.
“We want to make sure that we don’t miss a thing,” George said.
At the same time, KIPP New Orleans Schools, which will run Kennedy next year, is preparing to take over the school this summer. KNOS has hired a principal for next year and is working with current Kennedy staff, Director of Communications Curtis Elmore III wrote in an email to The Lens last week.
“After an extensive and rigorous selection process, KNOS selected Joseph Jones as the next Principal of John F. Kennedy High School and Alnita Porea as our newest Leader-in-Residence for the 2020-2021 school year, respectively,” he wrote.
Porea currently works for New Beginnings.
At last week’s meeting, George also told board members graduation is a week later this spring, scheduled for May 26.
“I pushed it back as far as I could without going into June,” he told board members. “Two weeks before that, if you are not finished with credit recovery, you are not graduating.”
George said district staff are at Kennedy every day and they have separate senior files. He also expects the state will review senior transcripts later this school year.
“This will be the most scrutinized class of kids, I think, in modern U.S. times.”