NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Administrators from the NOLA Public Schools district outlined their plans to standardize high school recordkeeping as part of their ongoing process of reviewing how its charter high schools keep student records and ensure that they are accurately tracking course credits and graduation eligibility. 

The changes came in the wake of a graduation scandal last spring at John F. Kennedy High School, when about half the graduating class learned — a month after the school’s graduation ceremony — that they hadn’t been eligible to graduate. A state report found the Gentilly charter school failed to adequately track students’ credits and improperly administered credit recovery courses — a student’s second attempt at a course after failing the first attempt. Last summer, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced a plan to audit high school student records citywide

A citywide audit began in the fall and was completed over the following months. A second round of audits will begin soon, Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson told Orleans Parish School Board members at a Tuesday committee meeting. 

Last month, the district publicly disclosed audits for eight high schools that had been completed. Peterson said on Tuesday that all high schools have now been reviewed. 

“The areas of improvement have been identified for each individual school and that will be shared with those schools,” she said. “When fully implemented, each school will have obviously, the stronger systems for documenting students academic matriculation through high school.”

Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban praised the team’s work, but asked that individual school information be presented at the next meeting.

“I do think it would be appropriate to share the school-level actual performance,” he said. “I do think it would be appropriate to make that public just like we do with the other types of accountability performance metrics.”

Peterson said that much of the district’s credit accumulation review, introduced after the Kennedy debacle, focuses on individual graduation plans and their contents. Individual graduation plans are state documents that outline what a student needs to do to earn a diploma. Some schools use that document and others have created internal systems.

“We really want to make sure, that given all of our student mobility, that no matter where they transfer, that process of credit accumulation is actually standardized and systematized, within our system,” she said. 

She said they found “that high schools citywide are compliant with the rules and regulations when it comes to planning for student diploma pathways, administering the end of course assessments and administering credit recovery programs.”

Still, a Lens review of some of the first round of reviews last month detailed recordkeeping problems at a number of schools. 

Lewis said the reviews allowed the district to get a better grasp on how schools are doing and offer them support. The first of its kind in the country, the NOLA Public Schools district oversees a collection of semi-autonomous charter schools, rather than running schools directly. 

“What this is allowing us to do as a school system, and I’m using the word system because this is a benefit of the system part of our unique district,” Lewis said. “Being able to see where every school is, being able to say that this is standard that we want schools to be, being able to go to every single school and see where they are and, as Dr. Peterson shared, where they currently are and where we want them to be and to help them get there.”

Peterson said some schools use the state Department of Education’s Individual Graduation Plan document, and others have created internal systems to track the same information. She said the district believes that greater uniformity is important.

The IGP “has really begun to be the transparent way that the family knows how their student is matriculating through schools, their credit accumulation, their pathway,” she said. 

Peterson and Lewis said standardized recordkeeping is not only important for students who may transfer during high school but also for high school counselors and other staff who may work at several high schools during their career. 

“One of the things we are pushing, of course, as I mentioned before in terms of systematizing, is that we are making sure all that same documentation is being collected from each school and looked at in order to make sure that credit accumulation for each school is the same,” she said. 

Lewis highlighted how that would help students and employees.

“So I just want everyone to be clear, two things happened. One was to make sure what happened at JFK was not happening at any other school and then also to understand where our schools are, set a standard and then help our schools get there. Nothing more nothing less,” he said.

New Orleans charter schools have traditionally been allowed independence when it comes to things like hiring, curriculum and some recordkeeping procedures. The Lens asked district officials if the district expects any pushback from charter operators. 

“We are not changing any processes or infringing upon charter autonomy, we are merely setting the baseline expectation for the contents of each high school student’s cumulative record and the process by which those records are updated on an annual basis,” read a written response from district spokeswoman Fatima Mehr, attributed to the district. “Ensuring that each student file has the same documentation and that schools are updating this documentation regularly will provide a more streamlined experience for students, families, teachers and administrators, regardless of the school they attend.”

Second round of reviews

A second round of reviews will begin later this month. Peterson said during the first round of reviews, some schools had trouble accessing a state system for tracking and updating student academic records. The first round found that some schools’ records in the Student Transcript System were out of date. The problem stemmed in part from the fact that schools are only able to update the system at certain times of the year. So the reviews will all be timed to ensure the state’s Student Transcript System is available. 

The second round will also expand its review of students in a transitional ninth grade program, called T9, and students who have taken credit recovery courses. 

“The round two audits will include a deeper dive on the transition ninth grade files, or T9 files, which is really just because during our round one we didn’t have a large enough sample size to really be able to get baseline data on that and we want to make sure we’re able to delve into that a bit more to understand how are schools are tracking that,” Peterson said. 

In March, the district will hold an informational meeting for parent liaisons so they can learn how to read individual graduation plans and pass that information on to other parents. 

Future systems to support students

Toward the end of Peterson’s presentation, Board member Nolan Marshall asked a question that got to the heart the situation in New Orleans, where the district oversees dozens of independent charter schools with their own policies.

“How soon after a kid receives a grade does that grade go on that transcript and go to the state?” he asked.

“That has to do with the individual school level, their processes,” Peterson said. 

Lewis had a personal take to add on. 

“I will answer that question as a parent,” he said. “So as my child finished the first semester of her senior year, the school that she attends actually notified all parents that they will be sending transcripts home for parent review. And stated the date that those transcripts would actually go home.”

His daughter attends Warren Easton Charter High School, he said. “That’s just one example of a school and how our high schools are also providing that information to our families.”

“I asked that question because me and my personal world, until we automate this process and have access to that automated data on an ongoing basis there’s going to always be a lot of moving parts where things can fall through the gaps,” Marshal said. “I would like to encourage the district to look at the possibility of … forming a committee or something to look at how this data is reported.”

That would help catch students who are in danger of failing to meet graduation requirements, Marshall said. 

“How we can possibly get to the point where we can automate this data, so we can also query the information, so we can have red flags pop up if a kid is falling behind or we can see if, on an ongoing basis, students are making the progress that we need. So this is just food for thought.”

Lewis agreed in essence, failing certain classes or being behind at certain points in middle school are known to be indicators for students who may struggle to graduate from high school. 

“I believe what we are trying to do as a school system is trying to eventually build a database to be able understand better where our students are now and be able to provide service to our schools by having an early warning system that better helps them to serve our students and our families such that it gives us the information we need to pinpoint the problem and give them the support and interventions that are needed,” Lewis said. “Those are things that we are discussing trying to solve to better support our schools.”

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...