More than 90% of seniors graduated on time from Einstein charter school at Sarah T. Reed, a drastic improvement from last year, when only 42% of the school’s graduating class qualified for diplomas at graduation. 

As a result, NOLA Public Schools administrators are ready to take the school off of the district’s warning list.

Last spring, the majority of 2022 seniors at Einstein, a New Orleans East charter school, had not met the state’s graduation requirements when they strode across the stage at their graduation ceremony. 

Few of the students knew that they were ineligible for their diplomas. Because the district’s accountability director position was vacant, the problems were overlooked until three days after graduation, when Raymond Delaney, Einstein’s board president, alerted the district to discrepancies. 

In a warning letter sent in June 2022, district administration concluded that school leaders had “failed to govern and manage Reed High School in a way that is responsible and compliant with law and policy.” Specifically, district leaders said Einstein’s administration failed to maintain students’ grades in the state system, and, among other problems, failed to properly implement credit recovery and seat-time recovery — the process students go through to make up missed course minutes and credits. 

Students can both retake exams and make up seat time in summer sessions. Within roughly a month of graduation, by June 2002, all but one of the 2022 Reed graduates had completed the missing requirements, making their diplomas legitimate. 

This spring, 58 of Reed’s 63 seniors graduated on time, according to both school and district officials. 

Of the remaining five seniors, three needed additional classroom minutes and two failed a LEAP 2025 test, the state’s standardized exams required for graduation. 

“ZERO students did not receive a diploma due to administrative issues,” Delaney wrote in a recent email, when asked specifically about any carryover from last year’s issues.

The Einstein missteps were especially troubling because they were strikingly similar to the 2019 graduation scandal at another New Orleans charter school, John F. Kennedy High School, under a now-defunct charter operator, New Beginnings School Foundation.  It also  seemed like Einstein might have deeper unresolved issues. The school had previously erred similarly in 2019, when it failed to give some middle school students the proper LEAP exam.

After the problems at JFK, the district announced specific safeguards and additional oversight. That the issues cropped up again at Einstein last year – and were caught only because of an attentive board member – raised questions about the district’s ability to monitor even basic educational standards like graduation requirements.

At an Orleans Parish School Board meeting earlier this month, Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Rafael Simmons said that Einstein at Reed addressed the concerns.

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the accountability staff finished a “closeout audit” at the school last week.

 “The school and organizational leadership should receive a formal letter regarding the closure of the Level II notice received last year before the end of June,” she wrote in an email.

The district has reserved its so-called Level II notices, the tier that Einstein received, for the most serious transgressions. (Though they are considering a third tier of warning.)

The district’s planned closure of that notice this spring was possible only because of increased district oversight throughout the last year, officials from both the school and district confirmed. 

To start, in 2022, the district required Einstein to undergo additional district monitoring. Einstein also ousted its CEO over the summer, eventually hiring Tara Johnson as its new chief. The school also hired a consultant to help upload student records accurately into the state’s transcription system, to be certain that 2023 seniors were cleared to graduate.

A Pattern of Concern

Looking back at the details of what happened last year sheds better light on that oversight.

After the 2019 scandal at Kennedy, then-Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. implemented a series of city-wide reforms. His oversight staff began reviewing high school student transcripts, requiring all charter groups to supply the district with state-required pupil progression plans. He also added a new position: high school accountability director. 

That position is not listed in the district’s organizational chart under Superintendent Avis Williams. When The Lens asked why, Alfonzo said that the position’s duties are split among all the directors within the district’s school-accountability team but added that a recent hire to the director team had “extensive high school experience.” Though the new hire’s official title does not reflect a high-school emphasis, NOLA Public Schools officials opted to “let our newest director focus on high-school accountability,” Alfonzo said.

From an accountability standpoint, “the “current structure moving forward” reflects that new alignment of experience and position, with all accountability directors providing oversight to the high schools within the group of schools they’ve been assigned.

Or, as Alfonzo put it: “Currently, all of the Directors of School Accountability are being cross-trained to conduct the high-school audits for each of the high schools within their individually assigned portfolios. Borrowing a term from investors, who watch over portfolios of investments, NOLA Public Schools uses a ‘“portfolio model,’” where certain administrators watch over portfolios of schools.” 

From the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, Delaney said, the district’s accountability staff was present at the Reed campus, emphasizing expectations to school leaders and staff and offering support from the district level.

District staff also watched professional development and teacher meetings, and met weekly with the CEO and school leaders to “monitor the required actions mandated in the NonCompliance Review,” Delaney said, noting that accountability directors also ensured that the 2023 graduation would be legitimate, by paying special visits to school counselors before the district’s transcript audit to make sure students met eligibility criteria. 

Such pre-graduation audits are intended to flag students who are missing courses or requirements. So that underclassmen also know that they are on track to graduate, the state requires that schools create Individual Graduation Plans, which outline each student’s diploma requirements and are signed by the student, parent and school counselor. 

After JFK, the district implemented high school transcript review audits for all high schools, including credit accumulation reviews. Since then – though the practice was delayed during the pandemic – one of the district’s assigned roles is to conduct annual site visits at all its schools looking for record-keeping, special education compliance and other matters.

Due to the “vital role” played by district accountability staff, this spring’s audit and graduation went smoothly, Alfonzo said. “Unlike the previous school year, there were no similar issues that arose.” 

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...