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Orleans school board considers revoking charter over grade-inflation, altered public records

Because of the grade irregularities, Kennedy was forced to hold graduation ceremonies last month without any diplomas, and only half the class got them last weekend.

NEW ORLEANS — The Orleans Parish School Board is considering revoking the charter for John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area because of multiple allegations of students’ grades being inflated and public records being changed.

Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis sent a letter to New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter organization that runs Kennedy and two K-8th grade schools.

The "Notice of Non-Compliance" letter states that “revocation is being considered” because of allegations that the former New Beginnings CEO falsified public board minutes to justify an improper million-dollar school bus contract and because of claims that grades were changed at Kennedy to falsely inflate the school’s performance.

“At the close of the investigations, if it is found that any of these allegations have merit, I will send a separate communication officially notifying NBSF of my decision to initiate revocation proceedings,” Lewis wrote to NBSF Board Chairman Raphael Gang.

The letter goes on to say the school district can revoke NBSF’s right to operate public charter schools if it failed to maintain accurate student records and public records, if it had multiple incidents of grade changes, if it awarded a contract without following board policy or if grade changes prevented students from receiving diplomas or transcripts they need to move on to college or other schooling.

Evidence exposed by WWL-TV and the investigative news website The Lens suggest all of those things have happened. WWL-TV reported in March that New Beginnings’ CEO at the time, Michelle Blouin-Williams, allegedly altered public board minutes to falsely make it look like the board approved a contract she signed with school bus provider Scholars First.

Lewis’ letter notes that changing board minutes is illegal and the school district has “received no information to dispute the validity of this allegation.”

Blouin-Williams was placed on paid leave in April and resigned May 7.

Also in March, The Lens reported allegations from a fired New Beginnings employee that Kennedy High students’ grades had been manually inflated after their teacher had left the school. The fired employee, Runell King, provided documents showing 17 Fs were raised to Ds and other grades were raised using a computer login belonging to a person who no longer worked at the school.

Lewis’ letter also says that outside lawyers hired by NBSF to investigate the various allegations found additional instances of grade changes involving Kennedy’s Class of 2019. It says those separate allegations, not related to those raised by King, led NBSF to fire five school leaders at Kennedy, including the principal and two assistant principals.

Because of the grade irregularities, Kennedy was forced to hold graduation ceremonies last month without any diplomas, and it wasn’t until this weekend that the first 67 graduates were able to get their certified diplomas.

Gang says NBSF is still working with the Louisiana Department of Education on reviewing another 80 students’ transcripts and is working as fast as it can to get additional diplomas to students. Meanwhile, angry parents and grandparents went to a board meeting to complain that their children are having trouble registering for college without their finalized transcripts.

Gang announced the hiring of St. John the Baptist Parish public schools chief Kevin George as CEO on Saturday, hoping his leadership would help “turn the page on a challenging time for our organization.”

“The New Beginnings Schools Foundation takes seriously the letter from the Orleans Parish School Board and is focused on forging a new path with Kevin George as our CEO,” Gang said. “Our focus is on building trust with the community and providing students with an excellent education next year.”

OPSB said it appreciates NBSF’s efforts, but pushed for more on behalf of students whose lives have been upended.

“While progress has been made, NBSF must immediately confirm the outstanding students’ eligibility status and provide the necessary supports to students where needed,” the school district said in a statement. “The present situation is unacceptable and falls below the standards OPSB sets for charter organizations.”

Gang promised students and families an update on diplomas and transcripts by Friday, June 14.

NOTE: Raphael Gang said Friday, June 14, that a "clerical error" caused New Beginnings to overstate the number of diplomas it gave out to the first group of Kennedy students cleared for graduation. Gang erroneously stated that 75 students had been cleared, but said Friday it was actually 67.

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