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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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.”

survey says

A new study shows where people live — not school districts — is to blame for continuing segregation in Indiana

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities. The school is one of the district's high-performing integrated Montessori magnets that is attracting families from outside district boundaries.

Segregation between white students and students of color in Indiana remains high, according to a new analysis from Indiana University.

This is true even as Indiana sees a growing share of non-white students. IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy conducted the study along with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

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“It is important for Hoosiers to recognize that research shows that segregated schools are systematically unequal,” said Gary Orfield, UCLA professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “History shows that Indiana did much more about this problem before the courts withdrew and needs to think again about positive strategies.”

Orfield raises an important point about Indiana history. Although the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954, Indiana outlawed segregation in 1949. Yet the state — and Indianapolis in particular — didn’t undertake meaningful integration efforts until years later. In many cases, those efforts were spurred on by federal court orders.

The study and accompanying interactive website, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, were released Wednesday on the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board. The landmark case called for the mass integration of U.S. schools.

Researchers looked at data from 1988, seven years after Indianapolis had started its court-ordered desegregation busing program to bring inner-city kids out to township schools, through 2015. The city’s busing order officially ended in 2016.

The study finds that school segregation across the state is due, in large part, to where people live. Urban counties, such as Marion, Lake and Allen, see racial and ethnic segregation play out across and within school district boundaries, and both rural and urban counties are segregated by income.

As Chalkbeat reported last summer, decades of departures by middle-class families who flocked to the suburbs and the celebrated, yet controversial,  “Uni-gov” plan were followed by a spike in the percentage of segregated elementary schools in IPS compared to when busing began. Uni-gov merged some services between Indianapolis and Marion County in 1969, but not the school districts, which contributed to more segregated schools. Now, experts say, because of residential segregation, integration would be difficult if left to school districts to solve on their own.

On average, data shows non-white students are more likely to go to schools where more than half of students qualify for meal assistance, a common measure of poverty in a community. And black students in the state, on average, go to a school where 68 percent of kids are non-white, whereas white students, on average, go to schools where 19 percent of students are non-white.

Although the IPS school board has taken steps to make the district’s magnet schools more diverse, few discussions have happened regarding school segregation at a city or state level.

Researchers say they hope the information can help drive change across the state.

“An important goal of this project was to make data available to policy makers, educators, and the public in a user-friendly way so that they can explore the data at a state, regional or local level,” said research assistant Jodi S. Moon.

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.