NEW ORLEANS — The Orleans Parish School Board says it is reviewing serious allegations of students’ grades being inflated at Kennedy High School after the network that runs the charter school, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, fired its data director for reporting the grading irregularities.
Runell King, 28, was a rising star executive at New Beginnings, which operates three New Orleans public schools – Kennedy High, Pierre Capdau and Medard Nelson elementary schools.
King said he was fired March 13 after he said he blew the whistle on reported grade-fixing at Kennedy High.
King said the New Beginnings CEO, Michelle Blouin-Williams, promoted and encouraged him at first, but did not back him when he came to her with concerns over grades being changed.
“When I went to her and informed her about it, the first thing that came out of her mouth was, ‘OK, I don’t want to have anything to do with this,’” King said.
King’s termination letter said that an internal investigation determined that he had failed to support his allegations with accurate data.
But Thursday night, after the New Beginnings board of directors went into an hourlong executive session with Blouin-Williams to discuss King's allegations, board chairman Raphael Gang said the investigation continues and claimed it was never closed.
Asked how it could have still been open if King was fired, Gang said he couldn't discuss personnel issues.
Blouin-Williams declined to answer questions about King's allegations.
King said he began sensing a problem when he reviewed the grading data from the first semester at Kennedy. As director of data, assessment and accountability at New Beginnings, he oversaw grading data for all three schools. He noticed red dots by some students’ grades in a single teacher's classes. He said the red dots meant that the grades had been manually changed.
“Why did these students’ grades increase and the other students’ grades remained the same,” he said. “Very rarely do we use modified grade changes, but in this instance, it was used to cover up an F or a D or whatever the grade might have been, just to erase it clean.”
King alleges that the grades were changed using the inactive log-on of a former employee. And all of the grades were changed for a single teacher who no longer worked at Kennedy, former Algebra III teacher Gloria Love.
He said that all of the grades that were changed were given by Love, who left in January. In one case, Love had given one girl who had close to 50 absences an F, but that it was later changed to a D.
“They used (Love's departure) as an opportunity to change those grades, to make sure those students graduate,” King alleged.
King said he talked to Love, who was not happy about the changes.
“All those D’s that should have been F’s, I need those F’s to be F’s,” she said in a conversation recorded by King. “It does not reflect the grades that I submitted on 10-15-2018 for Quarter 1.”
King's allegations were first reported last week by The Lens. This week, Blouin-Williams sent a letter to parents claiming "a thorough internal investigation found no evidence of manual grade changes."
Blouin-Williams' letter to parents claims "the changes were the result of grade scale weighting errors."
King says that's mathematically impossible.
“If there are 20 students in a class and we decide we want to change the weighting of the class and we go in and make the changes to the weights, every single student in that class will see an increase in grades. That's not the case,” King said.
King reiterated that argument at Thursday's board meeting.
"Michelle and I both know that weight changes would change the entire grades for everyone in the class," he said, looking directly at Blouin-Williams. "I'm not sure why you made that uninformed statement to the media. That's where you're going to have to explain yourself."
A string of King's supporters came before the board to blast the leadership for firing him. Jazzmine Richards, 19, a 2018 graduate of Lake Area High School -- now known by its pre-Katrina name of John F. Kennedy -- said King was a role model for young black men and one of the few leaders who cared about her and her classmates.
"It's making me emotional because I'm really mad right now," Richards said, choking back tears. "I'm really mad this man lost his job behind this petty stuff. Like, this is ridiculous."
King said the motivation to change the scores was likely to improve Kennedy’s School Performance Scores or SPS.
“If Kennedy didn’t do well this year, it’s possible that the charter could be taken away,” he claimed.
New Beginnings already lost its charter for the F-rated Medard Nelson. That school will have to be closed by the end of the school year. Kennedy received an F for students’ performance on standardized tests, but received a B for its high graduation rate, giving it an overall mark of ‘C.’
King said Blouin Williams was adamant that the school maintain an SPS score of C.
“She stressed it in many of our executive meetings,” King said.
He said he felt compelled to come forward with his findings because, “I think if we allow these things to happen, that’s just going to contribute to the lack of students being ready for college.”
A report by the Orleans Parish School Board on March 13, the same day King was fired, stated that two OPSB officials met with New Beginnings officials on March 12 to review their internal investigation. Blouin-Williams quoted the school board as having "concluded that the incorrect grades that were printed on the Q2 report cards were in fact due to a grade weight issue." But the OPSB report actually said "it can be concluded ...."
OPSB Chief External Affairs Officer Avione Pichon told WWL-TV the school board did not conduct a full investigation into King's allegations and was re-opening its review because of "new information."