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.

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.”

schools divided

Miss our discussion on school segregation? Watch it here.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Panelists discuss school integration in Indianapolis at an event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat.

Last week a panel of educators, policymakers and experts gathered for a community conversation co-sponsored by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Central Library and the Indianapolis Star about ways to address school segregation in Indianapolis.

As Chalkbeat reported earlier, the conversation capped a months-long discussion triggered by a series of stories from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star since June that have explored the 21st century challenges of integrating schools by race and income while ensuring all students have equal opportunities to learn. About 140 people attended the discussion.

See the recording of the entire conversation below. If the video is not showing up, you can see it here.

Indianapolis Schools Divided

IPS board approves changes to magnet admission, opening doors to more diverse schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Beginning next year, low-income students and children of color will have a better chance of admission to the most sought-after magnet programs in Indianapolis Public Schools.

At least that’s the intent of a plan approved Thursday night by the IPS school board that changes admission rules for the coveted programs, allowing more kids to win admission from outside the largely affluent neighborhoods where many of the schools are located and giving families more time to apply.

The board hopes the changes will make the process fairer for families and increase diversity in the district’s most popular schools.

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

READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

The change comes in the wake of a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star that exposed how the old rules gave the most privileged families in the district an admission edge at sought-after schools.

All five members of the board who were present voted for the change, but some parents were skeptical. There was enough opposition from members of the community that Board President Mary Ann Sullivan held a last minute meeting this morning with dozens of parents who had reached out to the district. Many of the critics came from neighborhoods that will no longer have priority in admissions to the district’s top magnet schools.

Parents also raised concerns about the changes to the priority boundaries at the board meetings this week.

Hannah Kiger, a parent of two children at Center for Inquiry School 27, spoke Thursday about her experience as a resident in the Fall Creek neighborhood, an area where children will no longer get an advantage in admission to School 27.

When Kiger moved to the neighborhood, she said families she knew would leave when they had children because they did not like the public school nearby. After she and her husband had a daughter, they began looking at schools, she said.

“I was delighted to find out that the public school that she was districted for had become a magnet school,” Kiger said. “It gave us a good, realistic option for her.”

Kiger criticized the board’s process for developing the new plan, saying it did not take the neighborhood demographics into consideration and there were not enough opportunities for input from parents.

But there were also supporters of the new lottery rules.

Troy Montigney, also a resident of Fall Creek, said that making the schools more accessible to low-income families would help increase opportunities for children to escape poverty.

“Parents can choose from many high-quality education options,” he said. “Unfortunately, not everyone as the plan currently exists has the same opportunity to pursue learning at the schools affected by this decision.”

District staff expect that the changes will increase diversity at the most popular magnet schools because under the old rules, white students were much more likely to win spots than other students. At the Center for Inquiry Schools, for example, more than half of the kids who were admitted to the schools are white while just a third of the kids on the waitlist are white. Most of the kids who applied and didn’t get in were black or Hispanic.

That’s in part because the admission rules at the schools gave an edge to some of the most privileged students in the district by giving preference to students who live within about a mile of the schools. The schools’ early application also favored high-income families who are more likely to be savvy about school applications

Under the new rules, the district will continue to give families who live near magnet schools an advantage in the magnet lottery, but the priority boundary will be smaller, opening more seats for students who live in other parts of the city.

The deadline for applying for spots in the magnet schools will also be extended, with the addition of two lotteries later in the year so that families who don’t make their choice by the early-January deadline for the first lottery still have a chance of winning spots.

“I know that not everyone is going to be personally happy with these changes,” Sullivan said. “But in a sense, this problem is something that we should be celebrating, because we actually have more interest in our schools than we are able to meet.”