The problems that recently led to more than 50 percent of seniors at Einstein Charter Group’s Sarah T. Reed High School being ineligible for diplomas, even as they walked at their May graduation ceremony, appear in many cases to mirror those that left students in a similar predicament three years ago — a highly publicized scandal that led to a series of reforms at the NOLA Public Schools district. 

Yet in spite of those new district-level checks, officials in the central office were not aware of the situation at Einstein until after the May 18 ceremony. According to district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo, a district staff reorganization last school year meant a position created in the wake of the 2019 scandal, to detect this exact problem, was unfilled and another employee was doing that work.

“During this process, the high school accountability assistant director position duties fell upon the Director of Accountability, who managed a separate portfolio of schools,” Alfonzo wrote. “As a result, the director had to prioritize more critical work such as the comprehensive evaluation of school site visits. This coupled with Hurricane Ida delays meant graduation eligibility audits for Einstein were conducted later in the school year, than they normally would be.”

More than 50 percent of the students in the senior class at Einstein Charter Group’s Sarah T. Reed High School were ineligible for a diploma when they walked across the stage at the school’s May graduation ceremony, according to a warning letter issued by a NOLA Public Schools official. 

NOLA Public Schools Interim Chief Accountability Officer Litouri Smith said that Ray Delaney, who chairs the school’s governing board, informed the district about graduation concerns on May 23, three days after the school’s graduation ceremony. That prompted a district audit of student records resulting in the highest possible warning the district issues to charter schools.

In the June 17 warning letter, Smith wrote that the district found just 36 of 84 seniors met graduation requirements as of the ceremony on May 20. And only three of the 84 had been told prior to graduation.

“Einstein failed to govern and manage Reed High School in a way that is responsible and compliant with law and policy,” he wrote.

In early July, following yet another warning letter from the district, the school’s board ousted Einstein CEO Ashley Daniels-Hall. Responding to questions from The Lens, Delaney would not say exactly what led to the decision. 

“We believe our statement speaks for itself. We cannot comment any further on personnel issues.”

Problems detailed in letter similar to Kennedy scandal

The four-page warning letter — fairly long by district standards — detailed a host of problems with record-keeping at Einstein. That included failing to track students’ grades in their online system throughout the year, failing to track students’ course makeup work and the complete lack of a senior math teacher last school year. With no math teacher, students completed online coursework that was not properly supervised, the letter alleges. 

School leaders also failed to maintain the State Transcript System, which in turn meant neither the school administration nor state officials could verify students’ graduation eligibility prior to commencement. 

The Louisiana Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for information about how many seniors the charter group submitted for diplomas and how many qualified.

Many of the problems at Einstein appear to be similar to problems that led to a recent graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School, where in the spring of 2019, about half the graduating class learned a month after graduation that they had not been eligible for diplomas. They had also not been offered the classes they needed to graduate, among a number of other problems.

There is no indication in the letter, however, that Reed staff or administrators improperly changed student grades, the initial March 2019 allegation that prompted a broader probe of Kennedy’s record-keeping processes.

The district first confirmed that 10 John F. Kennedy High School students’ Algebra III grades were inflated. In its final report, delivered later that year, the district’s investigation into whether those changes were improper was “ultimately inconclusive.” But the investigation led to further revelations of improper grade changes. 

“A second grade change scheme…is a different story,” Lewis said at the time.

Those actions, Lewis said, resulted in transcript delays for seniors and some seniors had to take additional courses and exams to qualify for graduation.

But what the district describes as the “second alleged grade change scheme” in its five-page final report went much deeper than a handful of altered grades and the three-paragraph description of it in the report. After administrative fallout from the handful of spring grade  changes, damning information about the state of the senior class was uncovered by a contractor. But much of that information, uncovered in May, wouldn’t be revealed until June. 

Those findings revealed more than half the seniors had been ineligible to graduate, including 69 students who had participated in the May 17 graduation ceremony, due to a combination of improperly supervised courses and poor record-keeping.

The problems at Kennedy prompted the district to begin annual checks of certain high school requirements, including high school credit accumulation. The district added a position  — of high school accountability assistant director — to help track student eligibility and what courses high schools were offering.

The district also launched a district-wide review of Pupil Progression Plans, a state-required document that outlines how students matriculate and course offerings at each school. 

Even though the Louisiana Department of Education requires the documents to be submitted each year, it does not review or approve them. 

As a result of the shortcomings at Einstein, dozens of seniors spent the first few weeks of summer making up required seat time or finishing courses they had failed to complete. 

Unlike Kennedy, where some seniors had to return to school the following year to complete their coursework and others waited weeks or months before they were cleared to graduate, it appears that issues at Reed were resolved relatively quickly. As of June 23, just one Einstein student remained ineligible for a diploma, according to the NOLA Public Schools district.

In a statement provided by spokesperson Cheron Bryslki, Delaney said the district’s warning prompted an internal investigation but wouldn’t get into specifics to protect student confidentiality.

“Such internal investigation was undertaken to ensure that students and families were able to achieve their academic goals and fully comply with Louisiana graduation requirements. Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the information obtained, Einstein cannot comment on its internal investigation or anything that might jeopardize student or employee privacy rights,” the statement read. 

“However, we can say that at this point all eligible students in question have since met the requirements to graduate. Einstein is continuing to evaluate the situation and plans to put in place proper procedures and protocols to prevent such issues from occurring in the future.”

Administrative changes

Less than two weeks after the graduation warning letter, Einstein received a second so-called level two warning letter for failing to comply with mandatory reporting requirements. The school allegedly failed to contact the Louisiana Department of Family and Child Services for eight days after an incident was reported to a staff member. It was another three days before the school contacted the New Orleans Police Department at the request for NOLA-PS.  

On July 6, the board held a special meeting concerning Einstein’s CEO. The Einstein network consists of Reed, two elementary schools and one middle school, all located in the east.

“At last night’s meeting, the Board decided to move on from the leadership of the school’s current Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Ashley Daniels,” board chairman Ray Delaney wrote in an email last week. “We thank Ms. Daniels for her years of dedication to the network of Einstein Schools and recognize her years as a public school teacher and administrator.”

“We believe it is time for our Board to appoint a new CEO, and we will begin that search process immediately. Our goal is to continue our quest for superior academic performance and advance Einstein’s excellence in teaching and serving the needs of our diverse student population.”

Delaney would not say whether Daniels’ contract had expired, as many education contracts do at the end of the school year, or if she had been terminated. However, an expiring contract would not have required board action. Tara Johnson was appointed Interim CEO.

As a result of the graduation issues, Einstein will be under heightened scrutiny from the district until at least midway through the upcoming school year. The organization will have to spend the next year sending detailed reports on credit accumulation, course offerings to the district. In addition, it must share its policies on credit recovery and diploma pathways with district officials.

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...