Mural projects transform buildings all over Baton Rouge _lowres (copy)

Advocate staff file photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — A chemistry-themed mural from the Walls Project colors the side of the Mentorship Academy located on Florida Avenue in downtown Baton Rouge.

A downtown Baton Rouge high school that opened in 2010 and was in danger of closing due to low test scores is on track to have its operating contract extended through 2023.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday recommended unanimously to renew Mentorship Academy's charter for five more years. Mentorship’s current contract expires in June 2018. The board is expected to formally approve the renewal when it meets again March 16.

Also on Thursday, the School Board tentatively agreed to pay $28,000 to resolve a long-running U.S. Department of Labor investigation into its treatment of Filipino teachers working in Baton Rouge. The settlement would cover back wages to eight Filipino teachers. The board is expected to give final approval to the settlement at its March 16 meeting.

In the Mentorship Academy matter, Head of School Graysen Walles did not attend Thursday’s meeting. In a Feb. 2 letter, Walles said he’s seeking a renewal a year earlier than normal out of a “need to refinance our downtown facility.”

“Financial institutions require us to provide proof of stability and a healthy relationship with the school authorizer,” Walles wrote, noting that a renewal of its charter would be the proof needed.

The School Board granted Mentorship Academy a five-year charter in early 2010 and the school opened the following summer. Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts, that typically last five years.

Locating in an old six-story bank building in downtown Baton Rouge, the new school arrived with the backing of LSU and support from a grant from BP. It was modeled after a technology-focused High Tech High in San Diego. It operated as two schools in one, one focusing on digital arts, the other on science and technology.

The academy had academic problems early on and its enrollment of about 580 students is still half the 1,200 students originally envisioned. The school’s initial letter grades were not good, bottoming out with an F in 2013.

The school showed modest improvement the following academic year, enough of a lift to help it renew its charter, but only a three-year renewal, expiring in 2018. As part of the renewal, the two schools were merged into one, dubbed Mentorship STEAM Academy.

In 2015, the school improved to C, thanks mostly to a strong 2014 graduating class. The school’s performance score slipped some in 2016, but it retains a C grade.

As part of the renewal process, the school system’s Accountability Office conducted an academic audit, visiting the high school in October and again in February. School officials also rated its future plans, as well as its financial, legal and contractual performance. Overall, the Accountability Office gave Mentorship a score of 3.4 on a 4-point scale.

Principal Walles told evaluators that the lack of “foundational skills” of many students when they arrive at Mentorship, especially in algebra and geometry, are continual challenges.

“We are a B school with C factors that we can’t control,” Walles said.

Meanwhile, the proposed $28,000 settlement with the Labor Department over the Filipino teachers is expected to put an end to the matter.

Hundreds of Filipino teachers came to Louisiana in 2007 and 2008, recruited because of teacher shortages in several large school districts.

In 2012, a federal jury ruled awarded $4.5 million to the Filipino teachers, saying the California company that recruited them negligently misrepresented the fees it charged and violated California laws governing employment agencies and unfair business acts.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system was originally sued for negligence but the federal judge dropped them from the suit in 2011. The lawsuit prompted a parallel investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We had concluded after we were successful in the litigation that the department had gone away,” Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, told the board Thursday.

Not so. Labor Department investigators last summer notified the East Baton Rouge school system that the federal agency had finally completed its investigation and found the district owed almost $400,000 to 73 teachers, Rutledge said.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed that the agency is investigating the school system but would offer no more details.

Rutledge said the school system challenged that $400,000 figure. By late January the two sides settled instead on the much lower figure of $28,000, involving just eight teachers, not 73. He said that the Labor Department mistakenly thought the 73 teachers were 12-month employees when they were in fact just 9- and 10-month employees.

As for as the eight employees who are part of the settlement, Rutledge said the Department of Labor found that six of them should have been paid for several days between the time they were legally available to work and when they actually started working. The other two employees were demoted from teachers to paraprofessionals soon after arriving because of classroom management issues, but the federal investigators said they were brought in as teachers and should have kept getting paid at teacher pay levels, Rutledge said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier