NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Rooted School, a charter high school preparing to graduate its first class of seniors, has for the second time in recent memory caught the attention of NOLA Public Schools’ district officials for problems in how it is educating its students. 

The Uptown school was “improperly offering distance learning courses and improperly awarding Carnegie credits,” according to the so-called “level 2” warning letter district Chief Schools Accountability Officer Kevin George sent the school on March 19. “Carnegie credits” are the basic credit unit used in Louisiana high schools.

This is Rooted’s second run-in with the district for academic issues. In February, George said the school failed to comply with the district’s grading scale by excluding ‘D’ letter grades from its grading scale. Rooted instead offered an “ABCF” grading scale, hoping it would encourage students with a D to work up to a C, but the district said that was noncompliant and the school was ordered to recalculate grades.

This time, district staff say they found students were “receiving credit for distance learning courses that are taking place outside of the school’s regular day” and sometimes without the supervision of a certified teacher, which is required for online courses. The school’s typical day has six class periods, George wrote. Students were completing an additional two to four classes, he said. In some situations, when students did not spend the minimum required amount of time to pass all online courses, they could decide how to allocate the minutes, affecting their final grades.

It’s been anything but a typical year for students. Schools closed in March of 2020 at the order of Gov. John Bel Edwards to curb the spread of COVID-19. The 2020-21 school year began virtually in August and schools were allowed to offer online synchronous and asynchronous classes. (Synchronous courses are live video conferences. Asynchronous courses are prerecorded classes that students can watch on their own schedules.) High school students moved to a hybrid schedule, which included some days on campus, in October. But high case rates in January shuttered campuses for another six weeks.

Rooted CEO Jonathan Johnson said he believes the school acted in good faith within state recommendations during the unusual year. 

“According to our understanding, and in accordance with our practices for the last several years of being audited by NOPS, we were offering courses properly,” Johnson wrote in an email Thursday. “Given the asynchronous options for all courses in light of the pandemic, and the amount of instructional minutes offered, there are enough minutes in the school day for students to engage in the courses they were scheduled in.”

George’s review came in mid-March. He found 18 students “do not have verifiable attendance data per course.”

Students were allowed to take courses outside of normal school hours this year, George’s letter explains, due in part to the hybrid schedule many high school students were on through much of the school year.

“This is allowed as a means of primary instruction and as an option to make up missed days,” George wrote. “The school’s online tracking system does not record the amount of time students spend completing work in specific courses.”

George appeared to find that problematic.

“As a result, school staff divided the total number of online minutes these students acquired by the number of classes they were enrolled in,” George wrote. It was not clear from the letter how they performed this calculation since the online tracking system did not record minutes. Asked Thursday afternoon, district officials said they would need more time to clarify. 

“Students with enough overall minutes were awarded credit for the classes in which they also earned a proficient grade,” George wrote.

Then he described a peculiar situation.

“Any student with an insufficient amount of instructional minutes, was allowed to choose which course(s) they would receive a failing grade in,” he wrote. 

But Johnson said that happened to just two students who fell short of minute requirements.

“As a result, each student did not have enough instructional minutes for the number of courses for which they earned proficiency, resulting in one of those grades needing to be converted to a failing grade,” Johnson wrote in an email Thursday. “To offer the highest level of hospitality to students and families in light of a global pandemic, and acknowledging that the Securly tracking system does not account for what specific courses students are spending their time, families were given the choice of which course grade was impacted.”

George ordered the school to discontinue distance learning courses and rescind any credits earned through them. Johnson said the school has completed that task.

“Rooted should determine how many instructional minutes students were in attendance per 

course. Students who have received a proficient grade and earned the required instructional minutes for a course should be awarded course credit. Students who have received a proficient grade, but do not have enough instructional minutes for a specific course may not receive course credit,” he wrote.

The school can allow students to make up attendance but it must be monitored and until then, the courses must be marked “incomplete,” George wrote. “This review process should include any courses that students opted to fail due to the previous instructional minute calculation.”

All those changes must be submitted to the Louisiana Department of Education.

George also said teachers must be certified to supervise distance learning courses. One of the primary problems at John F. Kennedy High School in 2019, leading up to a situation in which half the senior class was found ineligible to graduate, was that students were taking online courses without a certified teacher monitoring them. 

Again Johnson said he understood the school to be acting within policy.

“Charter schools aren’t required to have certified teachers. As such, we didn’t have a certified foreign language teacher or PE teacher supervising the courses affected,” he wrote.

“However, given that (we) have enough instructional minutes during the school day, students had access to supports and office hours when needed, and asynchronous learning options, we were under the understanding that our course offerings were in alignment with policy,” he wrote.

Johnson said the review affects 39 freshmen, 55 sophomores, 28 juniors and 10 seniors. That’s about 70 percent of Rooted’s 188 students.

“Good news is that all students can make up the instructional time this spring if they choose and a recovery plan is in place for seniors,” he wrote.

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...