Abramson Sci Academy on Read Boulevard in eastern New Orleans.

Last fall, an Abramson Sci Academy administrator sent an email telling 27 teachers to ‘fix your gradebooks,’ outlining how to change students’ grades to meet Collegiate Academies’ grade distribution goals. The email was obtained by media, making headlines and resulting in a public dressing-down from NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis. Though the administrator finished the school year she has been unable to find a new job.

Now, the former administrator — Whitney Omosefe — is suing the charter network and Orleans Parish School Board for libel, slander, defamation and is seeking financial damages after officials publicly denounced the email, which, according to her lawyer, was consistent with the school’s policies.

In a lawsuit filed Aug. 14 in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Omosefe’s lawyer argues the charter group threw the former assistant principal “under the proverbial bus” by failing to explain her actions followed long-held network policy that outlined how many A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s the network wants to see given in each class. 

Her attorney also argues white administrators implemented the same policies for years without consequence. Omosefe, who is Black, is now struggling to find a job in school administration.

“In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, [Omosefe] has chosen to break her silence to say that Black Educators Matter and Black Students Matter,” the filing states.

The Oct. 3, 2019 email that prompted media coverage and “disparaging” remarks from Lewis and Omosefe’s supervisor, Principal Rhonda Dale, came a few months after grade-changing allegations and resulting fallout at John F. Kennedy High School. Several Kennedy staff were dismissed, multiple investigations were initiated and dozens of seniors learned they had not eligible for diplomas despite participating in the school’s graduation ceremony. The network that ran Kennedy closed this summer.

But unlike what allegedly happened at Kennedy, Omosefe’s instructions were consistent with practice and policy at Collegiate Academies, the charter network that oversees Abramson Sci Academy and five other charter schools, attorney Suzette Bagneris argues. (Bagneris is also representing the plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit against Kennedy’s governing board.)

Bagneris included the school board in the lawsuit, because, she argues, it “had the authority to monitor and require corrective actions” of Collegiate charter schools. 

“I find it curious that the Orleans Parish School Board continues to say they don’t have anything to do with these schools,” Bagneris said in an interview Wednesday. “Yet if something happens at one of these schools Dr. Henderson Lewis is the first person to speak.”

‘Fix your gradebooks’

Omosefe’s Oct. 3 email instructed teachers individually on how to adjust their gradebooks to meet the goals outlined by the network.

“While we don’t want to ‘cook the books,’” she wrote, she went on to give specific instructions as to how to inflate the value of assignments students did well on and zero-out assignments the class did poorly on to meet the charter network’s goals for grades in each course section. If most students did not do well on an assignment, that may be the teacher’s fault, she reasoned. 

To one teacher, Omosefe wrote, “Your eighth and sixth periods are OK, but your other periods need some work.” One-hundred percent of students in the teacher’s sixth and eighth period classes had a B or higher. 

In one email, she told a teacher, “Your first and second periods are OK, but your third and sixth periods need some work.”

Collegiate’s goal is that 25 percent of students earn an A, 40 percent should have a B, 25 percent should have a C, and less than 10 percent should receive a D or F.

State law outlines two instances where it is appropriate for administrators to interfere with the grading process, “only upon it being determined that the grade is an error or that the grade is demonstrably inconsistent with the teacher’s grading policy.”

In the lawsuit, Bagneris writes that before sending the Oct. 3 email, network administrators provided Omosefe with a teacher-by-teacher breakdown of grades. Omosefe and “other administrators were charged with the responsibility to address teachers who were ‘far from their goals’ ” in grade distribution, she wrote.

Then, on Oct. 22 when WWL-TV and WDSU aired stories about the email, Collegiate and district administrators focused on Omosefe, Bagneris argues. That, according to the suit, is because higher level administrators made Omosefe’s instructions the focus of the incident.

“Instead of doing the honorable thing, the defendants chose to silence her while they protected their own reputations, jobs and relationships with Superintendent Henderson Lewis,” Bagneris wrote.

Lewis initially called the email “unacceptable” in an interview with WWL-TV. 

However, later that day, the district walked that back. Then-NOLA Public Schools district Communications Director Tania Dall issued the following statement attributed to Lewis: “Our team received the emails sent to teachers and the school’s grading policy. Upon review, did not see evidence of wrongdoing, but rather poorly written communications related to the school’s grading policy.”

Collegiate officials also pointed to a “misunderstanding” by the media in a letter to parents. But when asked by The Lens that month to explain any “inaccuracies” in the reported stories, they did not address the question and called the email a “poor choice of words.”

In response to the reporting, Abramson Principal Rhonda Dale emailed teachers reminding them the grade breakdown was simply an “exemplar” and not a “mandate.”

Asked about the lawsuit, spokeswoman Dominique Howse said the network does not comment on pending litigation. NOLA Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment. 

Decentralized system

Omosefe’s last day at Collegiate was June 30, 2020, when her contract with Collegiate was up, Bagneris said in an interview Wednesday. She had already planned to seek another job as a principal before the email in question was sent, Bagneris said. She added the network was aware of this last fall. 

She was told not to publicly talk about the matter, which her attorney argues was so she could serve as a “scapegoat and sacrificial lamb to hide the grading philosophy and policies” used by Collegiate. Bagneris stated she did not speak about the matter until the filing of the lawsuit.

After the “false and disparaging” comments, Bagneris said Omosefe is struggling to find a job. That’s something she also attributes in part to the decentralized nature of New Orleans’ schools resulting in what she said was a lack of job security for educators. Many New Orleans educators work on contracts that are renewed yearly and just a handful of charters have unions.

“In a sense, she has been ‘blackballed’ in her profession, as a result of the false and disparaging remarks made about her by Principal Rhonda Dale and Superintendent Henderson Lewis.”

The state Department of Education’s school performance scores, which are used to determine whether charter schools should be closed at the end of their contracts, “put undue pressure on charter school operators to “make the grade for themselves and their students,” the lawsuit says. It continues, “a lack of job security puts educators in the precarious situation of following the educational mandates of charter operators or face unemployment for rocking the boat.”

While Omosefe likely wouldn’t have created the policy herself, the suit says, she believed in it as outlined by Collegiate as a way to ensure that students of color receive a fair shot in a grading system known to have biases. 

In one policy document, Collegiate outlined its goal to raise grades.

“The bottom line: since we have strong evidence that our scholars are not far below the national average in either content mastery or character strength, our average cumulative GPA should be closer to the national average than it currently is,” the document stated.

“The policy at Collegiate Academies was sound and based on research. The Defendants could have stood by it, owned it, and defended it and Ms. Omosefe,” Bagneris wrote. “Instead, they chose to run from it, deny it, and sacrifice Ms. Omosefe.” 

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...