IPS seeks to end innovation partnership with Charter Schools USA

For the first time since Indianapolis Public Schools began partnering with charter operators to run campuses, the district is poised to end one of those agreements. 

Superintendent Aleesia Johnson’s administration is recommending that the IPS board vote Thursday to end its innovation partnership with Charter Schools USA to run Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School — citing shrinking enrollment, high staff turnover, and a new principal. 

The district has “concerns with the stability of the school moving forward, both financially and academically,” said Johnson, who wants to select a new manager to run Donnan next school year. 

The proposal is the latest volley in Indianapolis Public Schools’ push to regain control of three schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 and handed to Florida-based for-profit Charter Schools USA to manage. And it’s another twist in the road for Emma Donnan, a one-time middle school where CSUSA stepped in and then expanded to serve elementary grades through the innovation agreement with Indianapolis Public Schools. 

In order to take over full control of Donnan, however, Indianapolis Public Schools needs approval from the state board of education. The state board would face a choice of whether to hand control back to IPS — which could then select a new, local charter operator — instruct CSUSA to pursue a charter to continue operating it, or close the school altogether. 

Chalkbeat could not immediately reach Charter Schools USA for comment Tuesday evening. But in a statement to WFYI, spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds described the decision as “extreme.”

“While we have been working hard to bring Emma Donnan students to a place where they can be successful, it appears that IPS has been planning to disrupt this success all along,” Reynolds wrote. “IPS clearly has decided that parents do not deserve high quality educational options while their own schools are in decline.”

The Donnan elementary school was one of the earliest innovation schools created in Indianapolis Public Schools. As an innovation school, it is managed independently, but it is considered part of the district, which gets credit for its enrollment and test results. The elementary school has earned A grades from the state for the past two years based on test score growth, and the middle school had a nearly 10% jump in passing rates on the state test in 2018. 

Despite some bright spots, Johnson said that given the turnover in leadership at the school, she is not confident performance will remain strong.

“We couldn’t say that the folks who had led that effort and that work historically are going to be able to lead the work moving forward … because all those people are now gone,” Johnson said. 

The school has a new principal this year and unusually high teacher turnover, according to Jamie VanDeWalle, who oversees innovation schools for Indianapolis Public Schools officials. Between last school year and this one, 50% of staff turned over. And under 10% of current staff have been at the school for the last three years, VanDeWalle said.

District officials also raised concerns about shrinking enrollment. Donnan enrolls about 435 students in the elementary and middle schools combined, according to the district. That’s down from a peak of about 630 in 2016-17. 

Donnan is the first innovation school the board will vote on renewing. It is one of three such schools with contracts that are set to expire at the end of the school year, and the IPS board must decide whether to renew those agreements by the end of 2019. The other innovation schools whose agreements are up for renewal are Phalen Leadership Academy at School 103 and Enlace Academy. The board is expected to discuss those contracts in December. 

If the board decides not to renew the agreement with CSUSA, it would be the first time the district has ended an innovation partnership. But it’s unclear what the implications would be for other innovation schools since the district was already locked in a power struggle with CSUSA.

In the spring, Johnson made a last-minute push to convince state leaders to delay their decision about the future of two other takeover schools managed by CSUSA, Howe and Manual high schools. Johnson raised specific concerns over potential financial implications, but the move was also a roadblock at a time when the two schools are on the cusp of being permanently severed from Indianapolis Public Schools. State officials declined to delay and instead voted to instruct those schools to seek charters that would allow them to continue running independently

Donnan, Manual, and Howe are now seeking charters from the Indiana Charter School Board. The board is expected to decide on the applications in December. 

Whether the schools will win approval from the state charter board is uncertain. Some people have raised concerns about their financial stability as independent charter schools. And a recent Chalkbeat investigation found that Howe and Manual have exceptionally large numbers of students leaving without diplomas who are marked as home-schoolers. At Manual, for example, if students who left to home-school were included in the 2018 graduation rate, it would fall to 50%, from 78%.