NEW ORLEANS — The disastrous grading scandal at John F. Kennedy High School continues to hurt innocent students like Jessica Young.
Frantic efforts to salvage a $22,000 band scholarship to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., have now failed, all because school and Louisiana Department of Education officials took months to certify her transcript and present her with a diploma.
The 19-year-old Young was a trombone section leader in the Kennedy marching band, relishing the competition with other school bands during the Mardi Gras parade season.
“My favorite moment was when we were battling other people and we were marching up the street and I was seeing my people,” she said.
That competitive drive and musical prowess earned her a $5,500-a-year scholarship to Stillman in April. She had 28 credits as a senior at Kennedy, 4 more than she needed to graduate, so when she walked across the stage at graduation in May, she thought she was all set to open the next chapter of her life.
But then the bottom fell out for her and half of Kennedy’s 177 seniors.
Investigations in March by WWL-TV and the investigative news website The Lens had exposed grade-fixing and doctored records at Kennedy and its charter school network New Beginnings Schools Foundation.
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The charter network launched its own investigation in April and learned of even more widespread malfeasance and negligence at Kennedy. The charter board called in the state Department of Education to audit the students’ transcripts, and they determined 87 seniors were missing required courses.
Young was one of 53 students who had to retake classes in summer school to get her transcript certified. But even after she took those classes again in June, there was another long delay as state officials went over each of the summer transcripts with a fine-tooth comb.
New Beginnings promised to move students facing scholarship deadlines to the front of the line after a parent of another Kennedy student filed a lawsuit against New Beginnings, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state school board in July. Young’s mother, Raqchel Young, signed a sworn statement in a court-filing that her daughter was about to lose the scholarship at Stillman.
But she didn’t get her diploma and certified transcript until Aug. 6, just hours after a court hearing where WWL-TV confronted school officials and their attorneys about Young’s case. The deadline to present her transcript at Stillman and lock down the scholarship had already passed.
New Beginnings board chairman Raphael Gang said the school cleared Young’s transcript on July 26, but a state official testified in court Aug. 6 that the Louisiana Department of Education was still working through final approval of the 53 students that had to attend summer school.
“We realize the stress this has caused Jessica and her family,” Gang said on Monday. “This is an unfortunate set of circumstances, but we are exploring all avenues to make sure this situation is not a hindrance to Jessica’s ability to receive an education at Stillman.”
Young and her mother have spent the last two weeks calling and emailing Stillman officials, trying to explain why the transcript was late.
“I don’t think the school caught on to what’s been going on out here,” Jessica Young said.
Stillman College President Cynthia Warrick told WWL-TV on Monday that she was aware of the problems at Kennedy, but she could not make an exception in the scholarship deadline policy to accommodate Young.
“We have to maintain our policies through our accrediting body,” Warrick said.
Russ Wise, a former radio broadcaster and member of the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board, also tried to step in on Young’s behalf. He thinks Stillman has more leeway to help Young than Warrick says.
“I don’t see how it would have affected their accreditation,” he said. “They took the chicken way out. All they had to do was bring it to their board.”
Wise dedicated much of his work on the school board to music education. He said he saw WWL-TV’s reports about Young and offered to pay Stillman the scholarship amount for the first year.
But Wise said the school never got back to him when he asked for a commitment to restore Young’s scholarship in future years.
“That disappoints me most of all,” Wise said.
Warrick said Young is already accepted at the school and received more than $11,600 in financial aid, so she could enroll for online classes this year and reapply for the scholarship for next year.
“I hope she’ll keep Stillman as one of her choices,” Warrick said. “Sometimes in life you have to take a step back, but then you can step up.”
But Young may be too fed up to consider that. She said she’s decided to march in the band at Southern University at New Orleans and hopefully transfer to Southern’s main Baton Rouge campus or to another historic black college in Alabama, Talladega College.
“I decided yesterday because it seemed like nobody (at Stillman) is trying to help,” Young said. “It’s like they’re not trying to answer the phone… nothing at all.”