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Parent Sues over New Orleans Charter High School Grade-fixing Fiasco

July 2, 2019

A New Orleans charter high school operated by New Beginnings Schools, John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area, is in the throes of a grade-fixing scandal that has resulted in at least 92 out of 177 (that’s 52 percent) of its Class of 2019 deemed ineligible to graduate after all.

One of the consequences of this collosal display of the ineptitude in overseeing New Orleans charter schools is that the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) superintendent Henderson Lewis has made the post-scandal decision to audit the student records of all New Orleans high schools.

Lewis has also asked the Louisiana’s inpector general to conduct a criminal investigation into Kennedy’s grade-fixing mess.

I wondered how long it would take for parents of Kennedy seniors to sue. Well, I need not wonder any more.

According to nola.com, on Monday, July 01, 2019, Darnette Daniels, the parent of a Kennedy senior who participated in Kennedy’s graduation ceremony then discovered she was not eligible to graduate, Tayler McClendon, did just that. On behalf of her daughter, Daniels is suing the State of Louisiana, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), OPSB, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, and TenSquare, LLC, a charter school support organization involved in the management of Kennedy.

One can view the 14-page lawsuit here: Daniels-v-New-Beginnings;

Daniels’ lawsuit details the chaos at Kennedy, including its impact on her daughter. Below, I offer the much of the text of the lawsuit. (Copies of emails referenced in the suit can be seen by accessing the link to the suit.)

First, the general backstory:

In March 2019, news reporter David Hammer broke a story regarding students’ grades  being changed at John F. Kennedy High School (hereinafter called “Kennedy”) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The grade fixing allegations surfaced after Runnell King, a former data director, alleged he was wrongfully terminated for alerting the board that employees at Kennedy had manually changed grades for several students who took former-Kennedy teacher Gloria Love’s Algebra III class. King accused employees of changing F’s to D’s and D’s to C’s on the students’ records. Love had left her position before the allegations were made public. After the initial news report, more allegations came up when seniors who thought they were graduating learned they couldn’t because of falsely inflated grades

On April 1, 2019, Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS suspended CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams with pay and empowered Board President Raphael Gang to hire an educational management service. He entered into a contract with consulting group Defendant TENSQUARE on April 11, 2019. NEW BEGINNINGS also hired investigators with the law firm Adams and Reese to look into the allegations about grade-changing and a questionable bus contract.

In mid-April, Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS’ administrator Lauren Coleman told Defendant TENSQUARE’s staff that the network’s internal deadline for a graduate list was May 3, 2019. In an April 26, 2019 email, Meghan Turner (employee of TENSQUARE) told Brian Gibson (employee of NEW BEGINNINGS) the team still needed information. “As you can see below, we are missing several reports needed to identify seniors’ graduation status and incomplete items.” Brian Gibson then forwarded the email to his team at Kennedy. “Guys please give me an update on your parts of this. I need this behind us.” (Footnote: It is noteworthy that Brian Gibson had been suspended while an assistant principal at Landry-Walker High  School after a separate cheating scandal in 2016 before moving on to coach basketball at Southern University in  New Orleans. He started as principal of Kennedy in the 2018-2019 school year.)

In early May 2019, one month after the board hired Defendant TENSQUARE, Meghan Turner (employee of TENSQUARE) and Laney French (employee of TENSQUARE) identified nine distinct issues at Kennedy that had to be dealt with in order for seniors to graduate. On the same day, May 8, 2019, Kennedy Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper sent an all-staff email at 1:32pm titled “URGENT: Senior teachers – grade verification sheets needed by 2 pm.”

In a lengthy email, Meghan Turner laid out the problems. The school would need to address students with failing grades and others who had incorrect coding for their classes. Some students’ transcripts failed to note they had previously made up coursework in Kennedy’s remedial program, GradPoint. Others were still actively making up course work. Some students who transferred to Kennedy mid-way through high school had incomplete transcripts. Other students lacked final grades from previous semesters or were waiting on final grades in the spring semester. Some were waiting for results from end-of-course exams. Students are required to pass three end-of-course exams to graduate in Louisiana. They must pass English, Math and either Social Studies of Science. Internal emails indicate that there was confusion regarding who would serve as testing coordinator and have the difficult task of talking to seniors about their test scores. Additionally, some students had exceeded the state’s absence limit. Internal emails indicate that Kennedy’s policies on makeup seat time were unclear.

On May 9, 2019, one week before graduation, Kathy Padian, a TENSQUARE Partner who opened the company’s New Orleans office in 2015, emailed Brian Gibson to explain how senior certification was progressing. “Due to the sudden departure of your counselor and her apparent lack of completion of many tasks prior to leaving, I asked Meghan and later Delaney French to assist” in certifying seniors for graduation, Padian wrote. “We have concerns about the lack of data for many students and even though we are very late in the game, with graduation happening next week, we must do everything possible to confirm which students have and have not met the requirements.” That day, Brian Gibson asked the team to focus on transcripts and graduation eligibility for the top 15 students.

On May 14, 2019, three days before graduation, Laney French said 95 seniors were eligible to graduate, 30 had not met requirements, and she had 50 left to verify.”

On May 16, 2019, a contractor reviewing Kennedy’s student transcripts sent an email to administrators at the Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS including lists of 15 “pending” graduates and 12 “non-grads.” It said, “Please tell me asap if I am wrong about any student’s status,” wrote Laney French (employee of TENSQUARE).

That email, obtained by The Lens through state public records law, is one of dozens that show how administrators and contractors at the charter network scrambled to audit seniors’ graduation eligibility in the weeks leadings up to- and even after- the school’s May 17, 2019 graduation ceremony, which amounted to a complete farce for many graduates. The emails also show rising Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS’ employees and Defendant TENSQUARE’s employees as the contractors discovered more and more problems.

The task, dubbed “Senior Graduation Project,” was a multi-faceted audit that required reviewing grades, attendance, transcripts and state exam scores among other things. The 690-student school had 168 seniors in the official state count taken on February 1, 2019. These are necessary steps to determine a student’s graduation eligibility, though many steps, like tallying credits from freshman, sophomore and junior years, can happen earlier.

To add to the problems facing Kennedy, the high school’s counselor resigned with two weeks to go in the school year, and contractors found multiple problems throughout students’ records. In some instances, students had received two credits for a one-credit course. In other instances, there were wrongful acts of grade-inflation where administrators were accused of improperly changing some students grades from failing to passing. In other instances, students who were encouraged to take online classes in a program called “grad point” were not properly supervised by certified teachers, which resulted in no credit being applied for the work.

Piling onto the problems, in the aftermath of these discoveries, the CEO Blouin-Williams and five administrators “resigned.”

In the days leading up to the graduation ceremony, seniors and their parents were advised that most of the class would not be receiving diplomas at graduation because they had credits to make up. At the “graduation ceremony” held on May 17, 2019, the school’s blue-and-gold graduation program lists 155 names under the heading “John F. Kennedy High School Class of 2019.” Then-principal Brian Gibson advised that students were not going to be issued diplomas; instead, they were advised that their diplomas could be picked up at the school the following Monday. At 9 p.m. that night, six hours after graduation, a contract employee told Brian Gibson diplomas could not be issued on Monday. “No diplomas will be issued until everything is verified and resolved,” she wrote. On graduation day, emails show that determinations of ineligibility to graduate were still occurring.

The foregoing email (see lawsuit) shows that one hour and twenty minutes before the graduation ceremony, the school staff were emailing back and forth about a student who was missing an English III end-of-course test.

Three hours before graduation, Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper wrote to Lacy French (employee of TENSQUARE) about her concern over how the valedictorian and salutatorian’s grade point averages were calculated. “I don’t know what to advise,” French replied. “Historical grade data is riddled with errors that might be affecting the GPA but I can’t be certain because this is not something I’ve dealt with before.” French advised waiting until the audit was complete but acknowledged that couldn’t be achieved by 3 pm when the graduation ceremony began.”

On May 18, 2019, Brian Gibson (former Kennedy Principal) wrote to contractors asking why administrators had lost access to PowerSchool, Kennedy’s online gradebook. The records obtained by The Lens did not explain why employees were cut off from the platform.

Students had been told to pick up diplomas from Kennedy on May 20, 2019, the Monday after graduation. But that date kept getting pushed back. Diplomas were not issued the week of May 20 or the week after that. At a NEW BEGINNINGS Board Meeting, students and parents were begging for diplomas, transcripts and information. At the meeting, Board President Raphael Gang said the group was working as hard as it could.

On May 21, 2019, Kennedy had still not cleared up the status and confusion over GradPoint credits, transfer transcript corrections and updates on class credits for Spanish courses. In an email that day, French wrote, “There are massive inconsistencies with grades and attendance.”

On May 22, 2019, Turner asked for a list of students who needed summer remediation or to make up end-of-course tests.

On June 28, 2019, for the first time since allegations of grade tampering at Kennedy, the Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent addressed students and parents about the situation saying: “First and foremost, on behalf of this District, I would lie (sp.: like) to apologize due to the careless and reckless actions of adults they trusted at John F. Kennedy. You were undeserved and misled. You should be celebrating your senior graduation this month, but instead you have been forced to question the certainty of your future.”

And now, the impact of the Kennedy gross ineptitude upon Tayler McClendon, including backstory and terrible consequences:

Plaintiff TAYLER MCCLENDON was recruited to transfer from Slidell High to John F. Kennedy in her junior year. She and her mother were advised that she could take online classes through GradPoint and graduate in May 2019 – a year early. Relying upon this representation, Plaintiff TAYLER MCCLENDON transferred to Kennedy. She worked diligently many nights until midnight taking online classes from the comfort of her home. Her plan was to graduate in May 2019 from Kennedy and to enroll in a full-time program at Aveda to become a licensed hair stylist. Believing that she was graduating, she toured Aveda, completed the applications including applications for enrollment and financial aid applications. Her applications were just missing her diploma and transcript. Her Aveda classes were scheduled to begin on June 19, 2019.

Two days before graduation, Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON and her mother Plaintiff DARNETTE DANIELS, were advised that none of the credits that Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON had completed online would be recognized because they were not performed in the presence of a certified teacher. Prior to this disclosure, Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON had never been advised that the online classes needed to be performed in the classroom in front of a certified teacher. All of her hard work, all of her sacrifice, had been performed for nothing. Her transfer to Kennedy had been performed in vain.

In anticipation of graduation, Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON’s family members travelled to New Orleans from other states. The entire family had joyfully anticipated her graduation. She had participated in all of the things seniors enjoy, i.e. senior pictures.. senior rings.. senior prom.. and, yes, she walked the stage in a “graduation ceremony.” People gave her graduation presents and congratulatory words of encouragement. And, then in the weeks after graduation, Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON was advised that she needed to attend summer school and needed to return to school in August to complete her senior year because she could not make up all of the credits in one summer. Indeed, she had not graduated at all.

Plaintiff TAYLOR MCCLENDON has suffered extreme anxiety, depression, emotional distress, financial losses, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of an opportunity for higher education, and other damages to be shown at trial. She has been forever robbed of favorable memory celebrating her achievement as a high school graduate. There will always be a stain on her high school transcript that she must explain to educational institutions and future employers.

The suit continues with assertions, including those of “gross mismanagement”:

Plaintiffs assert that the Defendants’ gross mismanagement of Kennedy High School
including inability to maintain staff and teachers; overuse of substitute teachers; financial mismanagement; falsification of contracts that affect school operations; gross negligence in not knowing policies and practices of the Louisiana Department of Education regarding successful matriculation from high school – policies and procedures that competent administrators and teachers should have known; gross negligence in providing students with information regarding graduation credits and GradPoint that caused them to fail; and other acts of negligence to be proven at trial.

The suit also notes “a putative class of persons similarly situated,” which means Daniels’ suit could well turn class action.

Finally (in this post), the list of damages:

Plaintiff and a putative class of persons similar situated seeks damages as follows:

a) All past, present and future costs and/or expenses of senior year, including senior budgets, senior rings, senior photographs, graduation parties, and other senior year and graduation related expenditures;

b) All past, present and future mental suffering and emotional distress;

c) All past, present and future loss of enjoyment of life;

d) All past, present and future deprivation of college placement and scholarship opportunities;

e) All past, present and future deprivation of technical school placement and scholarship opportunities;

f) Loss of quality of life;

g) Damage to reputation;

h) All other forms of relief provided by law or equity together with interest from the date of judicial demand until paid, and costs of these proceedings.

Given that 91 other Kennedy seniors were entangled in this nightmare, I expect this lawsuit to become a class action.

scales of justice 2

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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