schools divided

Where integration works: How one inner-city Indianapolis private school is bringing kids together

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Oaks Academy Middle School started accepting vouchers immediately because it was part of an accredited network.

When Aundre Hogue and his wife started looking for a school for their children, they wanted a place that was more than just diverse. The idea was to find a school not only with kids from different backgrounds but one where they felt a true connection to one another.

It’s a rarity in a country where even the most diverse schools are often socially divided, with white children sitting on one side of the cafeteria and black children sitting on the other.

But parents and students say that The Oaks Academy, a private, K-8 Christian school with three campuses in Indianapolis, has managed to achieve what few schools do.

Lunch at The Oaks Middle School on the northeast side of Indianapolis has a lot in common with meals at any school: Kids carry plastic trays stacked with sliced fruit and chicken nuggets or soft lunch bags stuffed with sandwiches and Doritos. But here, as the hum of chatter and banging of metal chairs fill the small cafeteria, kids head to tables with students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

“I just love the fact that when you come to the lunchroom, everybody is sitting by everybody,” Hogue said. Hogue, who is African-American, has two daughters at the Brookside elementary school campus of The Oaks. “As a minority man … I wanted my children to be around everyone.”

The blending of students in the lunchroom is no accident.

At a time when many public and private schools are segregated by race and class — and even racially mixed schools are often accidents of shifting residential patterns — The Oaks was intentionally designed to include students of different races and economic classes.

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

Not every school can precisely emulate The Oaks, since its leaders, and many parents, believe the school is defined by its Christian values. But its remarkable capacity to attract diverse families and create a community where students feel at ease and form friendships across often intractable social divides offers insight for schools across a still-divided city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’ ” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

The formula for drawing diverse families to The Oaks is working. At the three campuses, about 52 percent of students are white, 34 percent are black and 14 percent are Hispanic, multiracial or Asian, according to state data. About a third of kids come from families that are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance.

The Oaks also has consistently stellar state test scores. Last year, it was the top-scoring network of schools on Indiana’s ISTEP exams.

In a year when just 54 percent of kids passed the test statewide, 83 percent of Oaks students passed. Students at the relatively diverse, urban Oaks campuses outscored their peers in affluent, mostly white suburbs such as Carmel and Zionsville. For poor and black kids, the strong test results are particularly exceptional.

Hart believes that the unique mix of children with different backgrounds is a key factor in bolstering their academic success.

“Receiving a great education is not just about information transfer — it’s about relationships,” he said. “Being successful in the world is about learning to build relationships with people that may be different than yourself.”

Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school that is integrated by design.

The model for integrating The Oaks is similar to the strategy used by many public magnet schools, which were originally envisioned as catalysts for integration. The idea is that placing schools in a low-income, usually black or Hispanic neighborhood, then offering a specialized education program that attracts white, suburban families, will create voluntary integration.

But in Indianapolis, magnet schools have evolved into more of a tool for promoting specialized curricula instead of aiding integration. Few Indianapolis Public Schools magnets successfully bring together kids from different neighborhoods, and some even exacerbate segregation through rules that prioritize students in their immediate vicinity.

The success of The Oaks, however, demonstrates that it is possible to convince affluent families to send their children to diverse, urban schools.

Students at The Oaks have widely different preparation outside school — some have educated, stay-at-home parents. Others grapple with instability, even homelessness. Like most schools, The Oaks sees lower ISTEP pass rates for its poor and black kids than it does for more affluent students. Last year, 72 percent of black students passed the test, compared with 91 percent of white students.

But the test score gap is much smaller between the two groups at The Oaks than at other schools across the state, where black students’ passing rate is 31 percentage points below that of their white peers.

Hart credits the high scores at the schools to a wide variety of strategies, from small class sizes to investment in early education. But committed parents and educators are the backbone of the academic success at The Oaks, Hart said. More than 90 percent of students typically return each year, allowing the school to emphasize behavior in the early grades so that students can focus on academics in later years.

Elijah Cummins, who recently completed the eighth grade at The Oaks, said he learned about the school from the tutors he worked with when he was struggling in first grade at IPS School 60 — at the time one of the lowest-scoring neighborhood schools in the city. Academics can still be hard for him, but now he sees his challenges differently.

“It’s a little hard, but for algebra it should be hard,” said Elijah, who considers math his favorite class. “I feel like our teacher makes it easy to understand.”

Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school that is integrated by design.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that poor and black students have better test scores when they attend integrated schools like The Oaks. Decades of research demonstrate that poor children perform significantly better when they attend schools that are largely middle class — schools with advantages such as well-prepared peers, engaged parents and high expectations from teachers.

The surprising success at The Oaks is the school’s ability to attract such a diverse group of families.

The Oaks was founded by congregants from Tabernacle Presbyterian Church who aimed to revitalize urban neighborhoods, Hart said. When the church opened a school in Fall Creek in 1998, the Oaks had just 52 students, and it was something of an experiment.

But even at that point, it was drawing in families who were black, white, rich and poor, Hart said. In the years since, it has largely attracted new students by word-of-mouth. Because the school has a fairly balanced enrollment, the new families who learn about the school also come from black and white communities.

The full sticker price for The Oaks is up to $10,110 per year, but low-income students at The Oaks typically receive financial aid from the school as well as tuition vouchers from the state, so they may pay as little as $500 per year in tuition and fees, Hart said. According to state data, 354 students at The Oaks received vouchers last year — just over half the enrollment.

Partly because of the voucher program, The Oaks was able to open a second elementary school campus and a middle school in recent years. Both schools are in former IPS buildings in poor areas on the northeast side — just a few blocks away, houses are marked by boarded-up windows. But it continues to draw in families from around the city.

Like many parents at The Oaks, Ken Yoder and his family live near good public schools in Franklin Township. If they’d never learned about The Oaks, he and his wife, Elizabeth, probably would’ve sent their four daughters to the highest-scoring township school district in Marion County —  a suburban district that is also 76 percent white.

But when the Yoders learned about The Oaks from a friend, they were immediately intrigued by the idea of a diverse, Christian school.

Now, Elizabeth drives more than two hours each day to take two of their daughters to The Oaks Brookside campus.

“We want our girls to grow up with just kind of a normal sense of diversity and appreciation of diversity,” Ken Yoder said.

To maintain an integrated school, The Oaks needs to attract not only low-income families from the neighborhood, but also middle-class families with many other options. The schools use a classical curriculum that incorporates requirements such as Latin. But ask parents and educators why they were drawn to The Oaks and they often focus on something else: the culture, the community and the Christian values at the schools.

“Having a small community helps you get to know everyone,” said middle schooler Grace Brenner. “Once you just get to know everyone, that helps you be friends with everyone.”

Students say that spending years with the same students and families helps build the community at the school — where kids make friends across class and racial divides.

Before Elijah Cummins transferred to The Oaks in second grade, he was at a school with lots of low-income kids. But even as a first-grader, he felt like an outsider. He didn’t own “cool things,” he said, and he was beaten up by older kids, sometimes coming home with a bloody nose.

At The Oaks, Elijah said, his outlook has changed. Instead of feeling embittered, he carries a sheet of paper for writing down jokes. Although there’s a financial gulf between Elijah and some of the more affluent students, he feels completely at home at the school, he said.

“I feel like everyone here is family almost, and I just really love everyone that’s here — the teachers, the students, the building,” he said. “I’m now the guy who changes all my anger into comedy.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.