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

Graduation rates in Orleans Parish and across the state dipped a few percentage points in the 2018-19 school year after years of sustained increases, according to a Wednesday press release from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Years of sustained increase statewide, from 64.8 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 81.4 in 2017-2018, slipped to 78.2 percent in the 2018-19 school year. The state announced the data release by highlighting the record number of absolute students graduating. 

The graduation rate data, which routinely lags by a school year, was further delayed this year by the pandemic because staff were shut out of buildings for a period of time when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools to close in mid-March.

“We are pleased to celebrate the coordinated efforts resulting in more Louisiana students earning a high school diploma than in previous years,” State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said in the release. “With the good news also comes concern, however, as the graduation rate for the cohort fell from the previous year.”

This spring, Edwards waived many typical requirements — including state standardized tests and some graduation requirements — due to the pandemic, which means the data likely represents the last normal baseline the state will have before those requirements are implemented once again. 

In New Orleans, the annual cohort graduation rate — which tracks a class of students over four years — dropped from 77.8 percent to 75.4.  The New Orleans graduation rate has hovered between a 72.1 and 77.8 percent for each year since data was available after Hurricane Katrina. (It’s unclear whether this data includes Recovery School District graduation data.)

NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Dominique Ellis Falcon said the district is analyzing its results. She noted some positive points in the district’s data as compared to the rest of the state, even as the overall district rate took a dip.

“We are encouraged to see that among our subgroups, our economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities continue to graduate at higher rates than their peers across the state,” she wrote in an email. “Yet, while we had seen an improvement each year for the last several, the overall results indicate that we have more work to do in order to get all students on track to graduation, a commitment and challenge made even more urgent in these difficult times.”

The district exceeded the state’s cohort rate for economically disadvantaged students by .4 percent and students with disabilities at 1.2 percent. Additionally, statewide, 67.1 percent of Hispanic students graduated with their cohort. In Orleans Parish, that number was 46.5 percent. 

Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher Charter School — both selective admission charter schools — maintained graduation rates above 95 percent. Edna Karr High School and Warren Easton Charter High School — both open enrollment high schools — slipped from above 95 percent to just below it this year.

Big drops at Kennedy, Cohen

At John F. Kennedy High School — where about half the 2019 class was unable to graduate on time as a result of a series of missteps by the administration — just under 65 percent of students graduated. That was a 17-point drop from the 81.6 percent of students who graduated in the prior school year. 

Last year, a former administrator tipped officials to an alleged grade changing scheme at the Gentilly charter high school. After multiple investigations and a thorough student records review by a third-party contractor, half the senior class learned they weren’t eligible for diplomas due to administrative malfeasance. Many students spent the summer and last school year making up credits they’d previously thought they’d earned. Kennedy’s governing nonprofit board ultimately surrendered its charter. KIPP New Orleans Schools took over the high school on July 1. 

As the scandal unfolded last summer, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. asked for a criminal investigation and called for a citywide review of high school student transcripts. Recently, the district began collecting the course offerings of its charter high schools to ensure students have access to required courses — one of the problems at Kennedy. 

The district did not respond to a question about Kennedy’s drop in graduation rate. 

Walter L. Cohen College Prep posted the lowest graduation rate in the city among non-alternative high school programa. Cohen’s cohort graduation rate has dropped from 60.7 percent in 2016-17 to 43.3 percent in the 2018-19 school year.

New Orleans College Prep CEO Joel Castro began working at the charter network in March 2018. The school has also temporarily moved to an old elementary school during renovations.

“There was simply insufficient diligence in tracking and monitoring students after they exited the school,” Castro wrote in an email. “A new administration was hired and began implementing new protocols for exiting students.”

About 50 students left Cohen between 2015 and 2019 that could not be tracked, he wrote. That meant they received zeros in the state’s calculation even if they possibly attended another high school.

“As a result, Cohen took a major hit,” he wrote. 

He said his team now has clear protocols to track students that leave the storied Uptown high school, including ensuring students receive counseling on how to enroll in another school. 

International High School of New Orleans also had a big drop in its graduation rate in 2019. Dropping from 82.8 percent in 2018 to 62.6 percent in 2019. 

Annual high school graduation data can be found on the state’s website.

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...