Indianapolis charter operator wants to take on an epic task: Managing all the struggling Gary elementary schools

A local charter school that has partnered with Indianapolis Public Schools could be taking on a huge new challenge — managing all of the elementary schools in the deeply troubled Gary school district.

Phalen Leadership Academies is part of a team bidding to be the state’s manager for the takeover of Gary schools. Tony Walker, a Gary attorney working with the Robert Bobb Group and a former member of the Indiana State Board of Education, shared the proposal with Chalkbeat.

Walker helped set up the match between Phalen and the Robert Bobb Group, led by the former emergency manager of the Detroit school district. Walker is board member of a Gary charter school, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, that Phalen began operating last fall. At that school, he said, “they have done a phenomenal job.”

Because Phalen is managing a Gary charter school, Walker said they would be able to start work immediately.

“They are already in Gary,” he said. “They are already recruiting teachers to Gary and other school leaders. We could just expand those operations.”

The Gary district was taken over by the state due to academic and financial problems last month. The Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board is charged with selecting an emergency manager to run the district, and they may not select the Robert Bobb Group proposal. A spokeswoman could not immediately confirm how many proposals were submitted by the deadline Wednesday

If the Robert Bobb Group proposal is chosen, Phalen would manage all of the district’s elementary schools. There are currently nine elementary schools in Gary, but Walker said that the district may close some to cut costs. Still, it would be a big step for Phalen, which currently runs two charter schools and two schools in partnership with IPS.

Phalen Leadership Academies was founded by Earl Martin Phalen, the first winner of the Mind Trust’s Education Entrepreneur Fellowship in 2009. Once a foster kid, Phalen graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. He founded a nonprofit that supported mentoring and tutoring programs in Boston. Phalen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Phalen Leadership Academies originally began as a summer program designed to help students catch up during the school break, and opened its first charter school in 2013. The network, which won approval for as many as 10 charter schools to be opened over a about decade, has continued to grow since then.

The network is playing a significant role in Indianapolis turnaround efforts. It has won strong support from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools, and is at the center of the plan to turn around failing IPS schools by partnering with charter managers and freeing their leaders of the constraints on traditional public schools.

Phalen took over IPS School 103 two years ago in the first test of the district’s plan to improve failing schools by converting them to innovation status. As innovation schools, they are considered part of the district, but their teachers are not employed by IPS and they are not part of the district union. This year, School 93 converted to innovation status under the management of Phalen.

In addition to running a Gary charter, Phalen is poised to broaden its reach beyond Indiana. Last fall, Phalen received a charter to open a school in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.