The NOLA Public Schools district has discovered yet another problem at John F. Kennedy High School, which faced a major scandal last year when half the students in its 2019 senior class were found ineligible to graduate. 

The district began reviewing high school documents after a school posed a question district staff found concerning. In addition to Kennedy, the district flagged Morris Jeff Community School’s policy language. It’s unclear which school first prompted the review.  

The Lens has confirmed that the problem led the district to tell schools to ensure all students’ grades — including their first, failed attempts in a course —  were included on their transcripts and factored in to their GPAs, according to an announcement sent to school leaders. Failing to include all grades in transcripts would violate state policies. But, when it comes to GPA calculations, the district’s message may go beyond what schools are required to do under state rules. District officials have since denied that the message was intended to be read as a new district regulation. 

It’s not clear exactly what Kennedy’s internal policy was, but it appears to relate to how students’ grades were recorded after they had repeated courses they had previously failed. The policy in question could have resulted in school staff improperly recording classes on students’ transcripts and was not in compliance with state policy, district officials said. 

Raphael Gang, board president of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the nonprofit group that runs Kennedy, declined to comment about the policy or how many students it may have affected. The group’s CEO Kevin George did not respond to a request for comment. 

At Morris Jeff, the problem policy said that after a student took a course for the second time, “the lower grade will be deleted.” 

“Last week we were called and told that our ‘repeat/delete’ policy was against state regulations, so we amended it to align with their expectations,” Morris Jeff CEO Patricia Perkins wrote in an email. “The school did not choose to count both grades – we were directed to do so.”

It’s not clear if Morris Jeff’s “repeat/delete” policy applied to a student GPA calculations, transcripts or both. And leaders at that school said it hadn’t resulted in any incorrectly recorded grades because no students had repeated courses “under these circumstances” at the high school, which has been open for two-and-a-half years. This year it enrolls freshman, sophomores and juniors. 

Though deleting a grade from a transcript is against state regulations, the state allows “repeat/delete” policies for GPA calculations.  

In an interview Friday, Caroline Roemer, the executive director of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said the district was correct on preserving academic records but wrong in asking schools to align GPA calculations. “GPA is not a formula determined by the state. It is a locally controlled policy.”

“Is it OPSB’s intention to make this the GPA policy?” she wondered, while also questioning if the district had the authority to do such a thing.

“I appreciate that OPSB is trying to get a handle on this and ensure that we don’t have the Kennedy disaster again,” she said, adding she hoped the district would work on communication. “I believe before you send out directives, you should have communication with school leaders.

Asked if the district may have overstepped in appearing to demand that schools adjust their GPA calculations, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis denied that the communication was a policy directive. Rather, she said, it was a simple reminder.

“There is no policy change being issued from the district,” Ellis said in a Friday phone call. 

Ellis said Friday some school leaders may have misinterpreted the email. 

“It caused some confusion because people misread it,” Ellis said. “A couple of people have responded back and are saying, ‘We’re confused on this.’ And we’re working through this now. That’s all that’s happening here.”

Morris Jeff has already changed its internal documents. 

Pupil Progression Plans

The policy at Morris Jeff was part of its “pupil progression plan,” a state-required document that outlines how schools promote students through grade levels. At charter schools, nonprofit volunteer boards — rather than a citywide elected body like the Orleans Parish School Board — approve those plans. Neither the state nor district reviewed the annually submitted plans, until now apparently. 

“After conversations with a school that led to a question about PPPs, we have reviewed each high school’s Pupil Progression Plan as part of our efforts to increase oversight,” a NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman wrote in an email attributed to the district. 

In mid-January, The Lens asked the district if it reviewed charter schools’ pupil progression plans. The plan describes what students need to advance from grade to grade based on state academic standards. In an email attributed to the district, spokeswoman Fatima Mehr wrote, “We do not approve or offer comment on these documents, as that is a function of the LDOE.”

When asked to confirm that assertion, Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn wrote in an email that “Pupil Progression Plans are sent to LDOE, but they aren’t reviewed/approved.”

The district said its board did not approve or review the plans “as the OPSB is prohibited by law from impeding a charter school’s programming autonomy.” 

But one week later, the district sent out a message warning school leaders about the transcript and GPA policy problems, which was based on a review of pupil progression plans. 

“It has come to our attention that some schools have been following a policy whereby if a student elects to repeat a course that they have already taken with the goal of achieving a better grade, the lower of the two grades will be dropped from the transcript and not included in GPA calculations,” the email said. 

“This is not in line with [two state regulations] and needs to be rectified as soon as possible.”

The district highlighted two specific sections in those two policies, BESE Bulletin 1566 and Bulletin 741. They are also in the district’s operating agreement with each charter school, according to the district. 

The district further instructed schools on how to calculate grade point averages and track repeated courses on transcripts. 

“If your school has been allowing students to retake courses and drop the lower grade from their record and/or GPA, please reach out to your Director of Accountability immediately to discuss next steps,” the email said. 

When we asked the district to explain the message, they said a school prompted the review.

“As stated before, the district does not approve PPPs. However, after conversations with a school that led to a question about PPPs, we have reviewed each high school’s Pupil Progression Plan as part of our efforts to increase oversight,” district spokeswoman Tania Dall wrote this week in an emailed statement attributed to the district. “Language potentially needing alteration was only found in two high schools’ PPPs, and the matter has since been addressed. The note that went out to schools was meant to clarify expectations across the district.”

Asked if the district could require alterations to charter schools’ PPP’s, state spokeswoman Sydni Dunn wrote in an email, “That is between NOLA and their charters.”

The district is not retroactively reviewing records to see if the weak policy language affected previous students, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said in a phone call earlier this week. Kennedy officials refused to answer questions and Morris Jeff said none of its students were affected because it has not offered repeated courses. 

Tracking courses and which courses were passed in credit recovery — a student’s second attempt at a course they had previously failed — was a major problem at Kennedy, according to a state review conducted last summer. 

Kennedy’s pupil progression plans were a major weakness at the school, said Kathleen Padian, a partner at TenSquare, LLC, which was hired last year to review student files there, in an October interview. 

“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. “The pupil progression plan for Kennedy was in no way, shape or form in compliance.”

Officials from Kennedy did not answer questions about whether the school had updated its policies. The Lens also asked KIPP New Orleans Schools, which is slated to take the school over from New Beginnings in the 2020-2021 school year. KIPP New Orleans did not respond to repeated requests for comment inquiring how the school would handle any affected Kennedy students when the group takes over the school. 

Morris Jeff makes changes 

Morris Jeff updated its plan at the end of January, according to an email from school spokeswoman Heather Harper.

“Morris Jeff met with NOLA PS early last week to clarify and make adjustments to its PPP,” Harper wrote. “Morris Jeff has no previous graduates and no other student has repeated a course under these circumstances.”

The language change in the school’s plan is pretty stark. 

The previous version of Morris Jeff’s PPP said students would be allowed to replace a grade if that course was repeated and they achieved a higher grade. It also said the grade would be deleted. 

Morris Jeff’s revised plan, revised Jan. 31, says, “If ANY course … is retaken, the student record MUST reflect both grades earned in the course, and both grades MUST be used in calculating GPA.” 

Contrary to the district’s directive, the state says schools can calculate a GPA with the highest grade achieved in a repeated course, raising the question of whether the district may have gone too far. 

When we asked the state if the district had overstepped, Dunn said it was a matter between the district and its charter schools. 

The state allows for what it calls a “repeat/delete rule” when calculating grade point averages, but state policy requires that all classes taken remain part of students’ transcripts. 

 “Local GPA is determined at the local level. For example, they may weight specific courses for valedictorian, honor cord, etc,” Dunn wrote. “They can also pick the higher course grade to determine GPA.”

Dunn wrote that the state has specific rules for how to calculate GPA’s when it comes to TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. 

Ellis did acknowledge that different calculations may take place at the state level. “The state can drop the lower grade when they do the calculation on their end.”

When it comes to student transcripts, Dunn said the state rules are clear: no grades should be deleted. 

“All academic course grades are academic records and should be on the transcript,” Dunn wrote. “A standard part of our review for signing off on transcripts was to check to see if the previously-attempted course was on the transcript.”

That’s something the district is also reviewing in its new high school audits, which review a sampling of 25 high school student files per school. 

Update: This story was updated to include comments from Caroline Roemer.

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...