NEW ORLEANS — Some students caught up in the John F. Kennedy High School grading scandal were told taking summer classes would earn them their diplomas. But they learned Tuesday that might not be the case.
A state education department official revealed in a court hearing that the summer work they did might have been for naught because some of students took different classes than they needed to graduate.
The grading scandal, a massive administrative failure that kept half of Kennedy High School’s Class of 2019 from receiving their diplomas and led to a complete overhaul of the school’s leadership, prompted a lawsuit from parents.
Eighty-seven of the school's 177 seniors were not able to graduate. Fifty-three of those students were able to retake and complete courses they thought would pave the way for their diplomas. Many of them were forced to take classes again because the software used, GradPoint, did not meet state requirements and because Kennedy failed to have a certified teacher present when they did the work the first time.
Those students – including the class valedictorian -- learned after walking in May’s graduation ceremonies that they still had to make up work in summer school classes using a different online program called Edgenuity. The school has previously said all 53 completed that work by July 10, but Jennifer Baird, director of accountability and assessments for the state Education Department, testified during a hearing stemming from the parents' lawsuit that some students took different classes in summer school than the ones the state recommended.
“We have 53 kids who did everything they were told to do, including going back to summer school to retake coursework they had already taken, and now they’re going to be told that they do not meet the requirements for graduation,” said the parents’ attorney, Suzette Bagneris.
Baird said Kennedy’s charter organization, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, still hasn’t provided all of the detailed data about the summer school work so the state can certify the kids’ transcripts.
Baird said she approved one transcript Tuesday and may be able to approve another 20 by week's end, but “not all of these kids are going to get across the finish line.”
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That puts students and their families, many of whom are on the verge of losing college scholarships if they can’t produce a certified transcript, back in the same limbo they found themselves in last spring, when they first learned that grades were changed improperly and online coursework was not administered correctly.
“They messed it up for my son, so he went back and did it again, and he came home with that paper in his hand,” parent Shelia Wise said, referring to a document that showed her son Anthony had completed summer school. “And now come to find out today, all that he done did, he may still not be qualified as a high school graduate? So, you just continue crushing dreams.”
Even Civil District Judge Paulette Irons appeared frustrated by the news.
“Hope’s about to die,” she said from the bench.
For some students, it’s already too late. Jessica Young was awarded a $30,000 band scholarship to attend Stillman College in Alabama. Her mother, Raqchel, said the band director tried to wait for months for her certified transcript but recently indicated the scholarship would have to go to someone else.
WWL-TV asked New Beginnings attorney Lesley Muse-Vincent about Young after the hearing Tuesday.
“We understand her plight,” Muse-Vincent said. “I’m a parent. I understand. Unfortunately, I just can’t comment.”
A few minutes later, Raqchel received a call to come to the school to pick up Jessica’s transcript.
“She still lost her scholarship,” Raqchel Young said.
Meanwhile, lawyers for New Beginnings and the Orleans Parish School Board made procedural arguments to stop Irons from issuing a court order to force the school to release the transcripts. Orleans Parish School Board attorney Sharonda Williams said the School Board isn’t involved because charter schools handle their own student data directly with the state. New Beginnings argued it’s a private nonprofit running the public school and therefore isn’t subject to a legal order requiring it to turn over records.
“It’s a shell game,” Bagneris said. “They’re making arguments about who should be here, who shouldn’t be here. You know, they’re trying to delay and we are running out of time. We are running out of time.”
New Beginnings CEO Kevin George was asked by a reporter what is being done to get those 53 student transcripts processed, but the charter organization’s lawyer, Lesley Muse-Vincent, stepped in.
“At this time we are transmitting as much information as we can to the Louisiana Department of Education and we are meeting with them by the close of the week and we are meeting with them daily,” Muse-Vincent said.
After Muse-Vincent made her procedural arguments, Irons asked her why this wasn’t being treated as an emergency. Muse-Vincent insisted school officials are treating it as an emergency and said it’s been “all hands on deck” to try to get students certified transcripts.
After declining to comment at court, New Beginnings released the following statement Tuesday evening:
“Given the level of inconsistency of student records kept by the prior leadership of Kennedy, members of our team have been forced to individually review and verify each student record before turning them over to the LDOE, who must then do the same. It is a painstaking and time-consuming process that simply is not as easy as certifying diplomas and handing them out.”
The statement also mentioned that the online summer school software provider, Edgenuity, may also have information that needs to go to the state. It did not address the fact that New Beginnings’ current leadership administered the summer school programs, not Kennedy’s prior leaders, who were all fired.