NEW ORLEANS — Nearly half of the students in John F. Kennedy High School’s Class of 2019 learned more than a month after graduation ceremonies that they can’t graduate.
New Beginnings Schools Foundation announced Friday that only 90 of 177 Kennedy seniors qualified for diplomas or certificates of completion. The announcement comes as the charter school board wraps up an internal investigation that confirmed allegations, first reported by The Lens and WWL-TV in March, that grades were changed improperly.
“Students and families have been harmed by the actions of adults, both through negligence and through malfeasance,” said New Beginnings board chairman Raphael Gang, who pointed out the grade-changing was only part of what a team of hired attorneys uncovered over the last three months.
“And some of that negligence stretches back a significant amount of time. And some of that malfeasance potentially does. But we don't have information on that yet.”
He said the investigation by law firm Adams & Reese continues and should conclude soon, but he can’t comment yet on specific findings.
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“What I will say is that the board is committed to ensuring that every family and student gets what they need so that they can graduate from JFK and be successful as they move forward in their lives,” Gang added. “And we are committed to doing that with integrity and with transparency.”
But parents are angry and frustrated this week after learning, more than a month after the May 17 commencement ceremonies, that their children can’t graduate, at least without taking summer school classes or re-enrolling for another senior year.
Denise Dixon was filled with pride when her son Dijon walked across the stage and received a folio that normally contains a diploma.
“He overcame every obstacle that was put in front of him. He overcame it. And he walked across that stage because he earned the right to walk across that stage,” she said.
But it wasn’t a diploma inside the folio. It was a paper that said, “Congratulations! Please return to the school on Monday, May 20th between 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. to pick up your diploma.”
Dixon later received texts from the school saying there would be no diploma on May 20 either. This week she learned that Dijon will need to go to summer school, to make up 15 hours for half a credit in Health class.
Dijon was one of 69 Kennedy students who were invited to walk in commencement ceremonies only to find out this week that they didn’t qualify.
Gang said only eight students had their grades changed improperly, but 87 can’t graduate because of other issues that could have been avoided if school officials were doing their jobs correctly.
“We discovered other kinds of instances of malfeasance, other instances of just basic negligence and work not being done in the best interests of students,” Gang said. “And that is why this investigation has resulted in so many students being involved, so many students unfortunately not being able to graduate at this moment in time.”
He said the changing of grades was a “clear act of malfeasance” and five Kennedy officials, including the principal and two assistant principals, were fired as a result. The fired principal, Brian Gibson, said he has never been informed of what he did wrong and insists he had nothing to do with grades being changed.
Gang said he could not speak about personnel decisions or specific investigation findings.
A whistleblower, former New Beginnings data manager Runell King, went to The Lens and WWL-TV in March with evidence that Fs were changed to Ds and dozens of other grades issued by a teacher who had left the school were later inflated without her knowledge.
But New Beginnings dismissed his allegations fired him, at least in part for making the allegations. At the time, he told WWL-TV that he wanted to prevent students from being hurt.
“What I wanted to prevent is, the students being told in May, 'You're not going to graduate,’” he said in March.
And that’s just what happened to Dijon Dixon and 86 others.
“They had an opportunity to correct it when (King) said something,” Denise Dixon said. “Instead of correcting it, I guess they felt like, this is how we're going to correct it: ‘You're fired!’”
King has asked New Beginnings to reinstate him as an employee, but said the board has not informed him of any decision.
Of the 87 students who didn’t graduate, 59 will be able to earn a diploma by enrolling in and completing one of two summer school sessions Kennedy is offering. Another 24 will need to re-enroll for the 2019-2020 school year or retake full courses, New Beginnings said in a statement.
There are 17 students who still need to earn at least 2.5 credits, and 28 need to take or retake course exams required by the state.
“We are genuinely sorry,” Gang said. “It is unacceptable that families are paying the price for adult behavior.”
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Kennedy could also pay a price moving forward. As a school, Kennedy got an F last year for its student test scores, but its charter was renewed on the strength of its high graduation rate. That could be in danger with the realization that barely half the class graduated this year.
The Orleans Parish School Board already sent a letter to Gang warning that it is considering revoking Kennedy’s charter.