Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district will now collect a list of the courses each of its charter high schools offers, following a year of increased supervision prompted by a graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School in 2019. More than half the senior class that year learned — after graduation — they had not been eligible for diplomas.

“This is the first time that we have collected course information from our charter high schools,” a district statement provided by spokeswoman Fatima Mehr said. “Schools have significant autonomy over course offerings.”

That appeared to be one of the problems at Kennedy, where students weren’t taking necessary classes or received the wrong number of credits for them. In some years, the state found, the school failed to offer critical courses. The district’s new template will require schools to outline how students can meet the differing requirements for the state’s “university” and “tech” diplomas. The outlines are due next week.

It’s information that former district deputy superintendent Kathleen Padian, who now runs a local branch of education consulting firm TenSquare, suggested the district collect last fall. Padian’s company helped review and sort out records at Kennedy as the school scrambled to figure out who was eligible to graduate last spring.

“I think it’s great. I applaud them,” she said of the new requirement in a Tuesday interview. “Honestly, my nephew was graduating this spring. I just thought, ‘My God, how incredibly depressing it would have been to learn at the 12th hour that the school had failed him and that he wasn’t able to pursue his dreams.’ ”

Dozens of Kennedy seniors spent last summer making up credits they thought they’d already earned. Some students had to take courses into the 2019-2020 school year.  

“We need to ensure the adults are taking care of students,” Padian said.

“The authorizer is the protection for parents,” she said, of the nearly all-charter district which oversees about 20 charter high schools. 

The district says the new requirement will help with the annual high school credit accumulation audits that Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. introduced last year in the wake of the Kennedy scandal. The audits send a district employee to each high school to review 25 student files.

“Collecting this information annually will provide the district additional information regarding each school’s unique pathways, course selections, and Jumpstart offerings,” the district statement continued. “We feel that this will streamline audits moving forward and potentially provide an additional level of information for families and students interested in pursuing specific college or career pathways.”

The district completed an initial round of the new high school credit audits in the fall, but according to district officials, its plan to complete a second round this spring was disrupted by the unprecedented statewide school closure — lasting three months in total — due to COVID-19. 

Increased oversight

In early January, the district released reviews for eight high schools that detailed a range of issues with recordkeeping. For example, some schools had trouble accessing a state system for tracking and updating student academic records. Others lacked academic support plans for students in the state’s transitional ninth grade program, called T9, which gives certain students who are behind academically an extra year to graduate.

The district audits are partially an attempt to standardize recordkeeping in the nearly all-charter school district. District officials said this was important not only for students, who may transfer schools, but also counselors and others who may work at multiple high schools in their career. 

“Among other considerations, the High School Credit Accumulation audit process was designed with the goal of standardizing high school record keeping citywide,” the district said in a February email. 

“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,” the email continued. “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.”

Padian said that’s especially important in New Orleans. 

“In an open enrollment system in particular, where students are allowed to transfer from school to school you could attend more than one high school,” she said. “We need to ensure the adults are taking care of students.”

Padian said the oversight is something independent charter schools agree to when they sign their operating contracts. 

“That’s the trade of it,” she said. “Autonomy for accountability.”

As of June 17, the district has completed the second round of auditing at Warren Easton Charter High School. District officials did not respond to multiple requests inquiring which other schools have been audited so far this summer. An earlier email, sent by Mehr and attributed to the district, said that work was expected to wrap up by early August.

The new course offering document breaks out required classes for the state’s TOPS University and TOPS Tech diplomas. The two diplomas require different classes. For example, the “university” diploma requires two years of foreign language whereas the “tech” diploma allows students to receive credit from workplace experiences and courses taken for credentials.

In October, Padian said that the state’s expansion of diploma offerings — including the “university”-track and “tech”-track diplomas — was good for students, but required extra work for administrators to ensure students met a variety of graduation requirements. 

“I’m not sure every school has someone who can interpret that,” she said in an October interview. 

Having that information will help the district determine if students have access to the proper courses each year. It’s essentially a clearly stated version of a larger document, called a pupil progression plan, that charter schools submit to the state on an annual basis. Neither the state nor the district reviewed those plans until the district found problematic policy language in Kennedy’s and another school’s plan earlier this year. That prompted the district’s February review of all pupil progression plans.

“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. 

A pupil progression plan describes what students need to advance from grade to grade based on state academic standards. The state provides a template for schools and every district must submit a board-approved plan to the state on a yearly basis. In a charter school, the nonprofit charter governing board — rather than a citywide elected body like the Orleans Parish School Board — approves the plan.

“Each grade level should have an English, a math, a social studies and science,” Padian said, noting she was just covering the basics. “And if you looked at a master schedule and didn’t see that, that should be a red flag.”

Throughout the 2019-2020 school year, the district continued to increase oversight. In February, a problematic grading policy at one high school prompted the district to review all high school grading policies to ensure all course grades for each student, including for example, a course they failed, showed up on their transcripts. 

Transitional 9th grade

Also in February, the district said it would ensure it examined student files of at least five students in T9, a transitional ninth grade program that allows students to enter ninth grade as they complete eighth grade requirements and gives them an extra year to graduate. The district’s initial auditing tool did include a review of T9 files, but if students weren’t property classified as T9, the district may not have been looking for specific items. 

That extra year can also benefit high schools in data reporting, former Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn explained earlier this year. 

“If a school fails to report a student as a transitional ninth grader, then that school will still be held accountable for graduating that student in four years from when they entered ninth grade, meaning they lose the additional year that comes from T9,” she wrote in an email. “The important question is whether the students are getting the supports and services they need.”

Educators have said the T9 determination, a decision made by the students’ elementary or middle school, doesn’t always make it to high schools in a timely manner because the district’s enrollment lottery often places students before the decision is made. That could also be a problem if it leads to improper course selection for those students.

State spokesman Ted Beasley said the decisions are supposed to be made by July 31, but policy allows exceptions for certain transfer students to hold off on making the determination until Oct. 1.

Reviewed last school year, The Lens found one charter high school whose pupil progression plan said it didn’t offer T9. Asked about it, Sophie B. Wright Charter School CEO Sharon Clark said all schools were required to offer it and that the information was an error and corrected it. 

Additionally, during the reviews last year district officials identified three Livingston Collegiate Academy students in T9 who did not have academic plans in their student files. 

It appeared other schools may have also been misidentifying or failing to categorize some students as T9 students early in the school year, as some schools often reported zero or very few T9 students each year to the state. 

A COVID-19 change could actually help ensure students in the program are identified as T9.

In light of the crisis, Gov. John Bel Edwards waived several academic requirements, including standardized testing. In the past, T9 placement could be largely based on how students fared on those state exams, which are processed over the summer.

Without waiting on exam results this year, schools were able to make promotion decisions earlier and given more leniency to make those decisions.

Overall, Padian thinks the increased oversight will help ensure students take proper courses and are indeed eligible for their chosen diplomas. 

“You need to know that kids are on track to graduation.”

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...