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Lagniappe Academies failed to screen employees for criminal histories, audit says

Lagniappe Academies failed to conduct criminal background checks on its employees last school year, according to the findings of a financial audit.

“During our review of Lagniappe’s personnel files, we observed that Lagniappe does not perform criminal history reviews…on applicants and employees,” wrote auditors from Carr, Riggs & Ingram certified public accounting firm in a 34-page report.

The school’s Board of Directors voted to accept the audit during its monthly meeting, held Feb. 27 at the 130-student campus in Treme.

Ninh Tran, the school’s director of talent and operations, told The Lens this week that the school contracted with someone to collect fingerprints for all 18 employees in November 2011, then send them to the state. But the state returned the fingerprints to the school in March 2012, Tran said, notifying Lagniappe officials that three sets of fingerprints were unreadable.

After that, Tran said, the school did not do its due diligence to complete the process before the end of the school year. When the current 2012-13 school year began in August, the school still did not immediately run needed background checks, he said, even though the state made the process easier by automating the process online.

Five new employees were hired in that time, Tran said.

He said the school corrected the problem in January and that all employee checks are now up-to-date.

“I think what we want to do is get it done much quicker,” Tran said. He hopes to complete the checks for the coming school year in July or August, as employees are hired, he said.

State law requires schools to conduct background checks on potential employees in positions of supervision or authority over children prior to employing them, though it allows schools to “temporarily hire” people while the checks are being processed.

Tran said that, once they were conducted, none of the criminal history checks revealed any criminal offenses that required the school to terminate any employees. He said several of the hires came to the school through Teach for America, which conducts its own background checks, and other schools.

“It’s something that we should prioritize,” he said.

In other board news, Chief Academic Officer Kindall Petri described taking a “whatever it takes” attitude in their efforts to prepare students for state-mandated Spring testing.

The charter school, which works with predominantly lower income students and has an F grade from the state, must raise its test scores to numbers that the state will find acceptable when deciding whether or not to renew the school’s charter in 2014.

Teachers volunteer to come to the school on Saturdays to tutor. And students bring flashcards home. But the school has a long way to go, officials say.

“We have students in the seventh grade who range in age from 11 to 17,” Petri said.

Faculty will be going all out to tutor students over the next six weeks, some offering one-on-one help to the neediest students.

Only 10 percent of the student body has access to internet at home, Petri said, so online study aids are not much help. Also, Petri said, many Lagniappe students’ families are being shuffled around at the Lafitte Housing Development, creating even more chaos in students’ lives.

Lagniappe’s administrators opened a school here because it wanted to serve children from the Iberville and Lafitte housing development, Covenant House and others with very transitory home situations.

Petri said that teachers are stable role models for kids who often lack stability. Turnout is good when the school’s faculty host Saturday school for those 40 or so children who need extra help preparing for tests.

Every staff member has been assigned to mentor one or two students, a task that requires calling parents to check in with student progress at home.

“Often we get the complaint: ‘I can’t help my child because I don’t know math myself,’ but we’ve got a whole list of things that you can do in terms of flashcards and other strategies that you can do to help your child,” Petri said.

The school’s staff is promoting test preparation by preparing special meals, hosting a sleepover to help students study, and creating special t-shirts for students. The school is considering reaching out to Tulane University for volunteer tutors. “They [the students] very much enjoy people coming in and affirming their work and progress,” Petri said. Many students have no one at home asking about their studies, she said, so she encourages every staff member to know every child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Board members in attendance were Joe Kimbrell, Emily Gordy, Lee Pryor, Frank Williams, Dan Henderson, and via teleconference Ray Smart.

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  • nickelndime

    I really would like to know how an “F” school can exist financially with 18 employees and 130 students and employ a “director of talent and operations,” a Chief Academic Officer…and other non-teaching personnel, yet cannot manage to perform routine background checks on employees. How long has this been going on? How long will the RSD be allowed by the State/BESE to waste public education money on failed school experiments and inept, unknowledgeable charter boards!