Indianapolis Public Schools is poised to renew two innovation school agreements

Five years into Indianapolis Public Schools’ unconventional partnerships with charter operators — arrangements that have transformed city schools and brought national attention to Indianapolis — the district appears likely to renew its first contracts amid some positive initial results.

The district is recommending a five-year extension of its innovation partnership with Phalen Academies, which is tasked with turning around School 103. Under Phalen’s management since 2015, the elementary school on the city’s far eastside has shown academic growth and cultivated a “calm, safe, and warm culture,” the district’s recommendation said.

In renewing the contract, the district would stop paying a hefty management fee to Phalen that no other innovation school was receiving.

IPS is also poised to renew its innovation agreement with Enlace Academy, a charter K-8 school that serves a high number of English language learners and operates in a district building in northwest Indianapolis.

The school board is set to vote Thursday on extending the Phalen and Enlace agreements.

The two renewal recommendations come on the heels of a messy break-up with another innovation partner, Charter Schools USA, which runs Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School. That split played into a political battle over three Indianapolis schools that have been under state control since 2012, including Emma Donnan.

Ending the Emma Donnan agreement proved that the district is willing to cut ties with outside operators that don’t meet its standards. But sticking with Phalen and Enlace would demonstrate IPS’ commitment to its innovation strategy for the long haul.

Since 2015, the district has been working with charter operators through this innovation strategy. Innovation schools run independently, but their enrollment and test scores count toward the district’s overall performance. The effort both looks to improve district schools and diversify options, while charter schools gain access to district resources and facilities. More than one in four IPS students now attends an innovation school.

It’s a controversial strategy. Innovation schools have won the district strong support from local charter advocates such as The Mind Trust. But pushback to the charter-friendly strategy, which allows schools to work outside the district’s teachers union, helped critics oust two school board members in 2018.

IPS continues to consider new innovation school proposals, including four prospective partners this year. But this year, it also started evaluating its existing partnerships since initial agreements are approaching their expiration dates.

The innovation renewals give IPS an opportunity to standardize contracts, by making changes such as ending Phalen’s unusual financial deal and instituting a $25,000 annual administrative fee that operators pay to the district.

Innovation schools located in district buildings would also be included in IPS’s review of facilities as it prepares to make cost-cutting moves, which could include closing schools and selling buildings.

Phalen Leadership Academies at School 103 was the district’s first innovation school in 2015. Phalen took over management of School 103 after the school earned several years of consecutive F grades from the state and was the site of “more student fights than many high schools,” the renewal memo notes. Despite a spike in teacher turnover two years ago, the school now sees broad parent and student support for the new principal and a much more positive school climate.

“Just comparing and contrasting the level of disarray that was in the school before we started, and then now, the culture and climate data — while not perfect — has made a lot of positive strides,” said Jamie VanDeWalle, who oversees the district’s innovation schools.

The school has made significant improvements in test score growth, although students’ proficiency rates on state standardized tests remain low. Last year, PLA at 103, as the innovation school is known, was issued an A based on student growth alone.

“We are extremely excited about continuing our work at PLA@103,” charter network founder and CEO Earl Martin Phalen said in an emailed statement. “We’ve appreciated the partnership with IPS and we hope to carry it on and continue to give our scholars on the Far Eastside the quality education, culture and learning experiences they deserve.”

At Enlace Academy, enrollment has been growing. The school posts reading scores above the district average — a notable accomplishment given that most students are learning English as a new language, district officials said.

Under the new agreement, the district would start paying for Enlace’s transportation costs.

“I think Indianapolis is showing what is possible in an educational landscape when everyone decides to work together,” said Kevin Kubacki, executive director of the Neighborhood Charter Network, which includes Enlace.