From 2019, John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

A year after John F. Kennedy High School’s graduation scandal was beginning to unfold, the class of 2020’s graduation ceremony has been plagued in a much different way — they won’t be able to have one, at least not in-person. 

It’s a story that’s unfolding across the nation as schools remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards this week ordered the state’s public schools — which have been closed since March — to remain closed until the end of the academic year. The state is urging school districts to continue to educate students using take-home packets and online classes, but physical gatherings — on-campus classes, sports and graduation ceremonies — have been cancelled. 

“The North Star for us this entire year was working to graduation,” Kevin George — CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which runs Kennedy — told New Beginnings board members at Thursday night’s meeting.

“Graduation was just— Man we were so looking forward to that,” he said, noting he doesn’t foresee a situation in which such a gathering could be held before July.

After the scandal in 2019, when about half the senior class learned a month after their graduation ceremony that they had not been eligible to graduate, the New Beginnings board voted to surrender Kennedy and its other school at the end of this school year, effective June 30. 

KIPP New Orleans Schools will take over Kennedy on July 1. InspireNOLA will take over New Beginnings’ other school, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School. 

George said he and his staff are still working on ways to celebrate their seniors. 

“Some kids are still in danger (of not graduating),” he told board members, based on how the students were doing in mid-March when schools statewide first closed. They have all been notified, he said. 

Of the senior class, 22 seniors still needed to pass a state required end-of-course exam to graduate. But the Louisiana Department of Education and orders from Gov. John Bel Edwards have waived that requirement for seniors this year.

This spring, with dozens of requirements waived, districts get to decide if students are eligible to graduate or move on to the next grade. 

“Everyone else has second chances,” George said referring to younger students. “For them, this is it.” 

The last day of school for seniors is April 30. 

“So then we move into credit recovery mode, May 1 through May 15,” he said. “If you still don’t make it there. You’ll have summer school to get it done.”

The NOLA Public Schools district, which had staff members on site at the charter after the scandal, is still monitoring the school, according to a district statement. 

“NOLA-PS is continuing to monitor the progress of students by reviewing student records as they complete coursework remotely. NOLA-PS and New Beginnings Charter Schools are in communication with each other to assure that the class of 2020 are meeting graduation requirements.”

After the scandal at Kennedy the district put a new system in place to audit high schools’ student records. 

The New Beginnings board voted to move up the last day for students at Capdau. It will be a week earlier than planned, now on May 15. George said this was necessary to allow staff to transfer student files to the schools’ new operators and get laptops and hotspots back from students, all of which has to be done in a coordinated, safe, process with the virus still spreading, he said. 

The organization expects to spend about $450,000 in close-out costs between July and December. That includes a required audit, staff time, legal costs — the charter group faces several lawsuits — and possible insurance coverage. 

New Beginnings reworked its bus contract with A&S Transportation, George told the board. The contract amount has been reduced to cover only bus driver salaries. 

He said the charter group consulted with its lawyers and the state on the reworked deal. George said they wanted to help staff get through the pandemic.  

Board president Raphael Gang said the organization, which is shutting down over the summer, is in a “unique position” to do that. 

“I think to the extent that it’s possible … we should be doing what we can to buffer our community from the worst effects of this situation,” Gang said.

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...