Charter Schools USA finds support for charter applications as critics stay silent at public hearing

For nearly three hours Monday night, staff, parents, students, and alumni made the case that the operator of three Indianapolis schools that were taken over by the state should be granted charters to continue running them.

As one supporter after another spoke and the crowd slowly dwindled, the mood of the remaining people seemed increasingly buoyant, with students laughing and cheering as their classmates stepped up to the microphone in the Manual High School auditorium.

“My daughter gets up every day excited to go to school,” said Kim Hamilton, who has three children who have attended Howe High School. “The staff is wonderful.”

Although the roughly 50 speakers at the meeting were uniformly supportive of the schools receiving charters, the decision is controversial. Members of the Indiana Charter School Board, who were not present at the hearing, will receive public comments and those submitted in writing.

Howe, Manual, and Emma Donnan Middle School are expected to exit state takeover at the end of this school year. With that transition about six months away, the futures of the schools are still in limbo.

Monday’s hearing focused on whether the state charter board should grant approval for the schools to continue under the management of a group tied to Charter Schools USA, which would essentially cement their separation from Indianapolis Public Schools. The state charter board is expected to vote on the matter at a December 13 meeting.

If the charters are not approved, it is unclear what will happen to the campuses. The options, which would likely be left to the state board of education, could include returning the campuses to IPS control or closing them altogether.

Officials from IPS and the mayor’s office who had initially signed up to speak against the charters — as well as a contingent of neighbors who are critical of Charter Schools USA — submitted written comments.

IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black said district staff decided written statements would be “more efficient” since the charter board members did not attend the hearing in person.

Ahmed Young, IPS chief of external affairs and general counsel, wrote in his statement that “IPS and countless community members wish for there to be local control of the buildings governed by the locally elected IPS Board of School Commissioners.”

Last week, IPS leaders scuttled a plan for the future of Donnan that would have allowed Charter Schools USA to continue managing the campus in partnership with the district. Now, IPS is seeking permission from the state to take control of the school and potentially bring in a different charter manager.

Young’s statement did not answer the crucial question of what IPS would do with the high schools if they were returned to district control. IPS officials have previously said they would close the campuses, but more recently, district leaders have hinted they may be willing to keep the campuses open — potentially, under the management of a different charter network.

Many of the speakers, however, feared the district would close the schools if it took control of them. Alice Glover, a 1961 graduate of Manual who is president of the alumni association, said that if Manual is not available to students, “a lot of them won’t graduate high school.”

“I don’t trust IPS to keep Manual open,” said Glover.

Even if the schools receive charters, however, they could face continuing challenges. Patrick McAlister, director of the mayor’s office of education innovation, said that if the schools had applied to his office for charters, he would have recommended rejecting them.

“I am concerned that the schools are not financially sustainable,” he wrote. “In Indiana, dollars follow the student. It’s not clear that CSUSA will come anywhere close to meeting the enrollment goals in its applications.”

The high schools are also facing additional scrutiny because a recent Chalkbeat investigation revealed that large numbers of Manual and Howe students have left without diplomas. Both high schools maintained higher graduation rates, however, because those students were categorized as leaving to home-school and left out of the state calculation.

That was one of several concerns about the school’s management raised by Laura Giffel, the president of the Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood Association, which is near Manual.

“I am fearful of their lack of honesty in our community,” wrote Giffel in a statement to the board that she shared with Chalkbeat. “The administration has proven itself loose with the truth.”