John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue in Gentilly. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The majority of John F. Kennedy High School seniors are “on track” to graduate with their peers this May, the charter group’s CEO Kevin George told board members last week. But about 30 percent of the school’s seniors must make up courses or state exams in addition to their normal course work.

The report comes nearly a year after a former employee publicly questioned suspected grade inflation at the Gentilly high school — an allegation that eventually led to multiple investigations uncovering myriad problems. That included the revelation that half the class of 2019 had been ineligible for diplomas — even though they’d been told they graduated.

One of those students, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school, has been forced to retake a full year’s coursework. Her mother told The Lens that the teenager has lost her motivation , and she worries that she won’t qualify to graduate this year. 

“This senior class is probably going to be the most scrutinized senior class anywhere, ever,” George said, echoing a statement he’s made several times over this school year. “Our job, I feel, has been to make sure that parents and kids know what they need to do, when they need to do it and the supports that we’re providing for them.”

The students who are on track, George said, don’t have any additional makeup work to do in order to graduate with their peers.

“Just pass your courses, don’t miss school and you’ll be fine,” George said, as he informed board members of the measures his team is taking to ensure students complete their requirements and that parents know their child’s status — both of which were issues last spring.

Administrators at Kennedy are even going so far as to send a letter home via certified mail to students in danger of failing to qualify for a diploma. 

“We’re calling it an ‘in danger of failing’ letter,” George said, noting it will spell out any requirements the students are lacking. 

“Because anyone who doesn’t make it, we know they’re going to the media.”

Making up course credits

In the meantime, many students are enrolled in credit recovery courses — a program that allows them a second attempt at earning credit for a course they previously failed. Students take the courses online under the supervision of a teacher. Credit recovery courses were improperly supervised last year. And some students were placed in an online course not to make up a failed class — which the program was supposed to be used for — but to take it for the first time. At least some of the students who took those courses last school year didn’t earn credit for them. 

This school year, 142 students have completed or are currently taking credit recovery at Kennedy. That’s about 25 percent of the Gentilly high school’s students. Of those students, 68 have earned a credit through the program. It’s unclear exactly how many students need credits and how many credits each student needs. Of the 142 students who enrolled in credit recovery this year, 99 of them were seniors, George said, about 80 percent of the 123-student senior class. 

George said students work at their own pace through the course material. 

“Some kids will take 18 hours, some will take 55 hours,” George said. “Kids who really want to can get their credits back.”

Of the school’s 123 seniors, George said about 70 percent are on track to graduate, meaning they don’t need to makeup any additional credits or missed days of school. “They are on track unless they fail a course.”

The other 30 percent of students in Kennedy’s class of 2020 fall into three different categories: They still need to pass one or more required state exams, still need to pass one or more courses for credit or both. George said all students who still need one of those items to graduate have been assigned a mentor. He said he is personally mentoring three students. 

George said the NOLA Public Schools district has created student files for each senior to separately track their progress. District staff are still frequently on site at the school, a relatively rare occurrence in New Orleans’ all-charter system. George said the school and the district regularly compare the sets of student files. 

A ‘repeated’ senior year

Darnette Daniels is the mother of a student who filed a lawsuit last summer on behalf of her daughter. Last school year, when her daughter, Tayler McClendon, was a junior at Kennedy, her counselor encouraged her to take online courses to try to graduate a year early. 

Her work to graduate a year early was unique, but the online courses she was taking to work toward her diploma were the same improperly supervised program other students were using. The extra courses she completed during her junior year didn’t count. 

Daniels said her daughter would often stay up until midnight working to complete graduation requirements. 

Now, she says, her daughter is distraught. “She screams, ‘I did this shit already,’ ” Daniels wrote in a text message. 

Daniels said it’s been hard to keep her daughter focused and she feels like the teenager is giving up.

“I don’t know if she’s going to complete this year,” Daniels wrote, adding that Taylor seems to be “giving up and don’t care anymore.” 

Other families have since joined Daniels’ suit, and the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status on behalf of the class of 2019 and current Kennedy students. 

The school has pushed graduation as late into the school year as possible, George said. It will be held on May 26. George said the school will hold what he called a “May-mester,” a two-week mini-semester when students can catch up on anything they still need to qualify for a diploma. Still, he hopes students don’t need to utilize that time period.

“But we’re telling kids, take care of business now, ‘You don’t want to be one of the last seniors scrambling on campus to finish up.”

After the scandal, amid a series of investigations last spring and summer, the school’s governing nonprofit group — the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — voted to surrender the charters for Kennedy and its other school, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, at the end of this school year. Kennedy will be run by KIPP New Orleans Schools next year and InspireNOLA will take over Capdau. 

Between Oct. 1 and Feb. 1, the state’s two official enrollment count days, enrollment at Kennedy dropped from 629 students to 584. Meanwhile, Capdau added about two dozen students, helping to offset the overall network’s financial loss in per-pupil state funding.

Last week, the board also approved an increase in a contract with EnRiched Schools, a company that provides teaching staff for schools. Kennedy has been unable to fill two teaching positions, George said. Now, those positions will be filled by EnRiched staff. The contract increased from $70,000 to $110,000. 

The charter board adjourned last week after a 25-minute executive session to discuss the ongoing lawsuit against the school. 

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...