The NOLA Public School district’s debut of high school transcript reviews — a citywide project begun after John F. Kennedy High School’s 2019 graduation scandal — show a range of issues with high school students’ records, according to an initial round of reports at eight high schools obtained by The Lens. 

At one high school, district employees found student files hadn’t been updated in the state’s system since the previous school year, meaning seniors were juniors in the eyes of the state. Many student files at several schools lacked test score reports, including state-required exams and ACT scores. Others failed to obtain signatures from parents on students’ Individual Graduation Plans, which outline state graduation requirements. 

While not all of these items are critical to graduation eligibility, the reviews shine a light on schools’ recordkeeping practices, allowing district staff to identify shortcomings in their systems and highlight practices that work. New Orleans’ public schools are all run by independent charter organizations. 

“This is the first attempt to standardize a city-wide approach to monitoring high school graduation processes in a decentralized system,” spokeswoman Tania Dall wrote in an email attributed to the district. “Our current focus is to ensure that no student is unfairly hindered due to the way that schools plan for and document progress toward graduation.”

The reviews are a response to myriad graduation problems at John F. Kennedy High School last spring, where nearly half of the school’s class of 2019 learned a month after graduation they hadn’t actually met state requirements. The district also hired an assistant director of high school accountability in response to the problems. Now, central office employees examine 25 student files per school to ensure they have accurate credit counts, graduation plans, up-to-date student information systems and properly indicate when a student earns credits through a credit recovery program. These were all issues at Kennedy. 

Dozens of Kennedy seniors spent the summer making up classes they learned hadn’t counted and waiting for their transcripts as the Louisiana Department of Education scrutinized each student’s eligibility. Several students sued the school, claiming the delays resulted in lost college scholarships and other hardships. While some students were able to enroll in college others had to re-enroll at local high schools. 

The scandal exposed charter schools’ sweeping independence over everything from course offerings to tracking students’ required state tests and offering and approving credit recovery. A state review found some students at Kennedy were never offered classes they needed. Others were lacking state exams but didn’t know it, and the school had offered credit recovery courses without a licensed teacher supervising them. 

A first for the district

The Lens first requested these reviews on Oct. 11, about two weeks after they began. We received reviews for eight high schools in response to that request last week. (The district has 24 high schools and has since reviewed every high school. The Lens has submitted a request for the additional reviews.)

“Schools have welcomed and responded well to the specific feedback provided and expectations set in order to continue serving students in a high-quality way,” according to the district statement Dall sent regarding the credit reviews.

Much of the review centers around students’ Individual Graduation Plans, called IGPs, a state document that outlines all requirements a student needs to graduate. The document requires yearly signatures from students, parents and counselors. The reviews also check a number of other items related to tracking graduation eligibility.

Results were mixed for the eight schools included in the first batch of reviews. The district’s statement said that’s because it’s starting with a high bar. 

“Several schools do have a number of shortcomings however, it is important to understand these ‘shortcomings’ in the context of our file review process.  Given that this is the first iteration of these High School Credit Accumulation reviews, we set the bar very high,” NOLA Public Schools district spokeswoman Tania Dall wrote in an email attributed to the district. “A school has to have every single aspect of each audit component 100% correct to be deemed in compliance. That, however, does not speak to the nuance of each school’s performance.”

One of the first reviews was conducted at Kennedy on Oct. 1. 

Just nine of the 25 graduation plans were found in compliance for signatures, and many upperclassmen were missing test reports in their files. The district found the three seniors who needed credit recovery were scheduled for it. 

CEO Kevin George wrote in an email this week that the charter group is working diligently to collect signatures. 

“Students and parents have been contacted (mailed letters, letters sent home with students, emails, phone calls and texts) and parents are asked to sign IGPs when they are on campus,” he wrote. “Additionally, IGPs are available at all school wide conferences to obtain parent signatures.”

He also wrote that upperclassmen who have test scores have had them added to their files. “The scores are also uploaded to our new student information system as well.”

The school is hosting a series of parents’ nights for seniors. 

“Parents are asked to come in to meet with counselors and staff on a variety of Senior topics including graduation requirements,” George wrote. “Letters were sent to Senior parents informing them of their child’s status as of the beginning of the spring semester. This letter included their child’s IGP, Graduation Requirements, transcript and schedule. This letter also indicates any unmet graduation requirements the student needs to complete prior to graduation.”

The district also reviewed six special education files as part of the school’s comprehensive review and found none were in compliance for service minutes — logging the amount of time students are given special education services — or progress reports. George wrote that the school has addressed these issues and is now in compliance. 

Kennedy now has weekly due dates for service logs and quarterly ones for progress reports. The special education coordinator collects the reports and reviews them for quality. George wrote that the school has met 100 percent of its internal deadlines for submitting reports but about 20 percent are sent back to the providers in order to meet the school’s quality standards. After receiving feedback from leadership, he wrote that 100 percent of reports meet the standards on resubmission. 

Reviews find problems and solutions, schools act

The majority of reviewed graduation plans at Martin Luther King Jr. High School had required signatures and academic plans. But the district found the school had failed to update the Student Transcript System, often called STS, since the 2018-2019 school year. The software is maintained and used by the Louisiana Department of Education to track students’ credits and graduation eligibility. 

“It appears that STS has not been updated for the majority of students since the end of the first semester last year,” the review states. “This means that current seniors are effectively mid-year juniors in the eyes of STS. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible.” 

Representatives of the high school did not respond to a request for comment. But according to a statement from the district, the seniors’ transcripts have since been updated. Ninth graders’ transcripts have been updated as well. 

But that left rising sophomores and juniors in the balance. The district said the school must comply before a second review this spring.

George W. Carver High School couldn’t access two recent transfer students’ information in the Student Transcript System, according to the review. Schools are only able to update the system during certain parts of the year.  That could affect what classes transfer students enroll in. 

“That means that for some new and/or transfer students, STS information may not be readily available until STS re-opens later in the first semester. This normally occurs in December,” according to the district. 

“In order to mitigate this issue moving forward, we are asking schools to include STS reports in the student’s physical file at the end of each academic year. This will allow schools to review a new or transfer student’s most recent STS record prior to gaining access to the student in the STS system through the student record request process.” 

Across town, one school was knocked on an apparent technicality, according to the charter network that operates the school. The district reported that KIPP New Orleans’ Booker T. Washington High School failed to provide individual graduation plans. KIPP New Orleans Schools spokesman Curtis Elmore said that’s because the school maintains the files online. The district wanted paper copies. 

The school moved into a new facility over the summer.

“The initial audit conducted by NOLA Public Schools (NOLA PS) took place shortly after this move and not all records had been reorganized in the new space,” Elmore wrote in an email. Elmore said the school printed the plans and passed a follow-up inspection.

At Livingston Collegiate, three of the 25 students selected are in a transitional ninth grade program, called T9. Those three did not have academic plans in their files. 

A spokeswoman for Collegiate Academies, which oversees Livingston and Carver, said the network appreciates the district’s feedback and is using it to improve internal systems.

“For example, we increased training for staff on all requirements and expanded our data team to create stronger systems network wide to ensure students are meeting all requirements,” spokeswoman Zoey Reed said. 

The district’s review of Carver highlighted its process of documenting attempts to get parent signatures and the reviewer wrote other schools should consider a similar process. 

“We are proud that NOLA Public Schools recognized a bright spot at Carver and its potential impact on other schools citywide,” Reed wrote in an email Friday. 

The district is sharing informal best practices in the course of these reviews, according to the district’s statement. 

“We are not recommending that schools adopt the same “policy” but rather document their good-faith attempts more fully,” the statement Dall sent read.   

In Landry-Walker High School’s files, only one of 25 graduation plans had all the required signatures. The reviewer also said it was unclear if the high school offered “diploma endorsements,” such as a community service endorsement which requires 80 hours of community service from a student. Diploma endorsements are not required by the state but many students use them to boost their academic resume. 

A spokeswoman for Landry-Walker said “Following the results of our audit, our academic leadership team worked with NOLA-PS to resolve the findings and strengthen our policies and procedures.”

She would not answer a question about whether the school offers diploma endorsements.

At two alternative high schools, which enroll students who’ve been expelled from other schools or transfer for other reasons, the district found a handful of issues. 

At The NET Central City, several IGP’s lacked signatures. When reviewing special education files, the district found a handful of students who lacked necessary paperwork from their previous schools.

The district also found many students’ IGPs at ReNEW Accelerated High School lacked total credit counts, test scores and required signatures. The reviewer, whose name is not listed, also praised two ReNEW staff members by name, noting their student files were most complete and advising the school to have other staff replicate their process. 

Follow up

The district has yet to review additional files at any of the schools where it discovered issues. But district staff will be conducting a second round of audits this spring.

“For schools that are still not meeting expectations during the second review, depending upon the severity of the issues discovered, the district will use all of the tools at our disposal to ensure a quick and comprehensive resolution to the issues identified. Such actions could include increased oversight and support, mandating that schools contract for additional support, or a number of additional corrective actions aligned to individual needs of each school,” a written statement attributed to the district said. 

The reviews appear to be particularly important for transfer students. In the city’s decentralized, charter-based system, schools can offer required classes during different years, which could cause a student to miss out on certain required classes if they transferred. Transfer students also appear to face great lag times when it comes to schools accessing their records. 

Kathleen Padian, a consultant whose company, TenSquare LLC, reviewed and uncovered problems at Kennedy, suggested the district ensure a certain percentage of the 25 students reviewed are transfer students. It’s unclear if the district has done that. 

The Lens asked the district if it would use these findings to review past classes for graduation eligibility problems. Dall provided the following answer attributed to NOLA Public Schools. 

“Our immediate focus is to ensure that … all schools have the policies and procedures in place to ensure that all current students eligible for graduation are able to graduate on time and receive due credit for the coursework completed.” 

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...