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

The mismanagement that led to about half of John F. Kennedy High School’s class of 2019 being unable to graduate on time were problems for years before Kennedy and NOLA Public Schools officials previously acknowledged, a lawyer representing former students in an ongoing class-action lawsuit alleges.

The lawyer, Suzette Bagneris, made the claims in an amended complaint, filed in late September, which includes testimony from former employees.

Bagneris first filed suit in July 2019, two weeks after half the students in the 2019 class found out, after their graduation ceremony, that they wouldn’t be receiving diplomas. A series of investigations — by New Beginnings, the state Department of Education and NOLA Public Schools — found that the school was plagued by poor oversight, inadequate record-keeping and alleged falsification of students’ records.

According to those investigations, the school failed to offer required courses, allowed students to take online classes without proper supervision. In at least a few cases, according to the NOLA Public Schools investigation and deposition testimony by New Beginnings Board President Raphael Gang, staff inflated students’ grades to make them appear eligible to graduate.

Bagneris’ September complaint contains hundreds of pages of new exhibits to support her case that some of those problems had gone on for years, and New Beginnings officials had been made aware of them.

The documents detail known course credit tracking issues at the school early as the 2015-16 school year, when the class of 2019 would have been freshmen.

“They already knew the [2019] senior class was going to be off track,” years before they were seniors, Bagneris said in an interview last week. “Their solution to that was to double up on core curriculum in junior and senior year.”

According to Bagneris, then-guidance counselor Ashlei DeLarge brought the issues to multiple principals, beginning in the 2015-16 school year and to Michelle Blouin-Williams when she was hired as the new CEO in 2016. Leaders first responded with in-person makeup courses but for students still needing credits in 2018-19, responded by enrolling some of the students in online classes, using Kennedy’s former remedial program, called GradPoint. 

As the state later detailed in a review of Kennedy, there were at least two problems with that plan. One was that GradPoint was intended to be used only for students repeating a class, not taking it for the first time. The other was that certified teachers were supposed to be monitoring the online courses, which allegedly did not happen.

“Ms. DeLarge brought it to the attention of the new principal and Ms. Blouin-Wiliams and that’s when they started giving those students GradPoint classes — and they were improper to be giving them to them,” she said.

The new findings include what DeLarge described as a fundamental flaw in record-keeping that school leaders had been aware of for years. Another problem, DeLarge explained in a September deposition, was a constant churn of principals and resulting changes in scheduling that affected how students took courses over their high school career. One example, she gave, was a switch from taking seven or eight courses a typical semester to only taking four in a shorter semester. That made it more difficult for students to make up missing credits, DeLarge explained.

Bagneris, who first filed on behalf of only the impacted students from the class of 2019, now hopes to include the full class of 2019 as well as the classes of 2020, 2018 and 2017. (She has removed the classes of 2021 to 2023, presumably because the lead defendant, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, gave up control of the school effective this school year.)

The original lawsuit named New Beginnings, the Orleans Parish School Board, the Louisiana Department of Education, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and a contractor who reviewed student files during the 2018-2019 school year. An Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge allowed the contractor, BESE and OPSB out of the lawsuit, but last month a state appeals court ruled the case against BESE and the city school district can proceed, sending it back to Civil District Court. 

Bagneris charges that the state, school district and charter group all had specific failings that led to the problems for the students. She argues that principal turnover, noncompliant Pupil Progression Plans — a state-required plan that outlines course offerings — and improperly offering credit recovery courses all contributed to the school’s problems. 

Autonomous charter groups, like New Beginnings, approve their own Pupil Progression Plans — they traditionally aren’t reviewed by the school district or state department that requires them. But this winter, after the fallout at Kennedy the district reviewed PPP’s for the first time ever and offered suggestions to several schools. 

With the case against the NOLA Public Schools district back on, Bagneris argued that district officials failed to act to keep students from being harmed. The district has largely held that because Kennedy was a charter school the charter group was responsible for academic records, not the district. 

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo declined to comment on the specific claims in the September complaint.

“Due to the posture of the pending litigation, we will not be commenting at this time,” she wrote in an email. “The District continually strives to fulfill our vision of making sure all of our students receive a high-quality education that fosters his or her individual capabilities, while ensuring that they thrive and are prepared for civic, social, and economic success.”

Transcript history

According to the new complaint, during the 2015-16 school year, the school changed student information systems, which track a student’s courses, attendance and other academic matters. The next year, DeLarge audited all Kennedy student records. 

“Her audit revealed that a large number of students were missing core curriculum requirements from their transcripts, and she noted that Kennedy lacked transcripts for many transfer students in their student records,” the complaint says. “She also noted a computer software glitch in the transfer of data from [the old system to the new system], which was not transferring academic transcript information for 11th and 12th grade students.”

DeLarge explained her process in an early September deposition. 

“I discovered that some courses were missing from children’s transcripts,” DeLarge said.

She also noticed that some transitional ninth grade students, in a program called T9, were missing core courses. T9 students are often enrolled in remedial math or English courses which can fill up their schedule and must be diligently tracked to ensure they meet all additional ninth grade requirements.

DeLarge said that during the 2017-2018 school year, she developed a spreadsheet to track any deficiencies in students’ schedules and that her superiors, including former New Beginnings CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, were aware of the issue. DeLarge said the course shortcomings made public in spring 2019 — and later detailed in investigative reports — should not have been a surprise.

“This is something we foresaw a while ago,” DeLarge said. “And we worked to try to fix this.”

Meanwhile, former New Beginnings board chair Raphael Gang told lawyers he was not aware of these issues until the spring of 2019. Charter boards are responsible for hiring top employees, monitoring the school’s budget and other high-level matters but generally don’t deal with day-to-day school operations.

Spring of 2019

The spring semester of the 2019 started with a bang when then-New Beginnings employee Runnell King internally accused other administrators of changing grades at the school. 

Initially, the school and district both dismissed the matter after brief investigations. 

But Bagneris found disciplinary letters sent to employees from around the time that were directly related to King’s charges. Bagneris said that demonstrates that the charter network was well aware of the problem. Several New Beginnings employees had to take an ethics course, according to February 2019 letters placed in their academic files. 

What’s more, Bagneris said, those letters raise questions about a later NOLA Public Schools district investigation. The investigation into King’s allegations — released in September 2019 — was “inconclusive,” though it did find evidence of a second grade changing incident in the days before the school’s May 2019 graduation.

“We have confirmed that the initial investigation into the first grade changing was not inconclusive. They did indeed confirm that ten students’ grades were changed in January of 2019,” Bagneris said. “The same people that changed the grades were left on staff. And they are the same people who changed the grades 72 hours before graduation in May of 2019.”

Weeks after taking his complaint to his bosses, King was fired. That’s when he took the allegations public.

In the following weeks and months, Blouin-Williams was placed on leave and later resigned. Lawyers hired by the New Beginnings board looked into the initial allegations and additional allegations involving officials board meeting minutes and a bus contract.

New Beginnings hired a contractor to audit student records, and behind the scenes, there was a mad dash to confirm which students were eligible for graduation and which were not. 

One week after graduation, five Kennedy administrators were fired. At the time, New Beginnings officials wouldn’t confirm whether they were fired or had resigned. But Gang’s later testimony, and a termination letter sent to former principal Brian Gibson — included in Bagneris’ new exhibits — spell out what New Beginnings officials said to Gibson at the time.

“During this investigation it became clear that you engaged in activities that violated your duties to the students and violated school policies and procedures as it relates to grading and grade adjustments,” he wrote.

In his deposition, Gang said the spring 2019 audit “revealed lots and lots of challenges for many students.” 

“What became clear to us was that the students — there were students that were on that list who were not eligible to graduate, and that various individuals inside John F. Kennedy knew were ineligible to graduate, and were going to falsify records in order to make them eligible to graduate,” Gang said.

“When we caught them doing this, that then called into question every student in the class and whether they were eligible to graduate, because we couldn’t distinguish between which students they had falsified and which students they hadn’t falsified records for,” Gang said.

Gibson denies any wrongdoing and is also suing New Beginnings. His attorney wasn’t immediately available to comment.

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...