McCormick questions Manual officials about high home-school numbers

Indiana’s top education official pressed the manager of Emmerich Manual High School to explain why the Indianapolis campus had the highest proportion of students leaving to home-school of any traditional high school in the state.

“The students who are there, it sounds like good things are happening. But more than half [as many] are leaving to go to home-school,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said at a meeting Wednesday. “There’s no other high school in Indiana that’s … close.”

Manual was the subject of a recent Chalkbeat investigation into the large numbers of students leaving without diplomas.

McCormick’s pointed questioning came during a State Board of Education discussion that was supposed to be focused on Emma Donnan. That Indianapolis middle school, like Manual, is managed by the Florida-based Charter Schools USA and expected to exit state takeover at the end of this school year. The board voted 8-1 to instruct Charter Schools USA to pursue a charter to continue running Donnan.

The only dissent was from McCormick, who raised questions about student attendance and turnover at Donnan and zeroed in on the high number of students leaving Manual. Sixty students who were expected to graduate in 2018 left Manual to home-school. The class had 83 graduates and six dropouts.

Because the state does not track whether students who leave to home-school continue their education, there’s growing concern among state leaders that the designation is distorting graduation rates and masking students who are, essentially, dropping out.

Charter Schools USA officials acknowledged the high numbers of students leaving to home-school, and said they are working to keep students in school.

Some board members applauded the work Charter Schools USA has done at Donnan, Manual, and Howe High School, a third campus in state takeover.

“The data is overwhelming. This is a success story,” said board member David Freitas. “We can nitpick and find little things, but we didn’t create Charter [Schools] USA to be the perfect system. But they have turned around the school.”

Wednesday’s vote was a victory for Charter Schools USA and a rejection of Indianapolis Public Schools last-minute proposal to hand management of Donnan to another charter operator under district oversight. But it is just one part of a longer process, and in order for a nonprofit associated with Charter Schools USA to keep control of the school, it must win approval from the Indiana Charter School Board.

The charter school board is expected to vote next week on charter applications for Donnan, Manual, and Howe. If the board does not approve the charters, the future of all three schools would end up back in the hands of the State Board of Education, which could give control back to Indianapolis Public Schools, close the schools, or pursue another option.

At the meeting, Donnan officials previewed the case they are likely to make to the charter board, focusing on the school’s strong test results. Passing rates on the combined math and English ILEARN exams at Donnan exceed district averages. Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not dispute the academic outcomes. Instead, they pointed to other factors they consider concerns, such as high teacher turnover and shrinking enrollment.

If IPS wins back control of Manual, the district would maintain oversight of the campus, but Christel House Academy, a nearby charter school, would move into the building. The proposal gives Indianapolis Public Schools an ally in their battle for control of all three schools — as Christel House is a long-standing and politically powerful charter network.

Charter Schools USA, however, is in a strong position because they have the support of many teachers, families, and alumni at all three campuses. The company’s CEO, Jon Hage, said that the schools are not perfect, and when it comes to students leaving to home-school, no one was trying to “scam the system.”

“There’s no evidence of wrongdoing purposely,” Hage said. “I mean, I don’t know if home-school is always the best choice, but it might be in some cases and parents do have to know the information.”

Manual administrators work directly with families who leave to home-school, knocking on their doors to follow up, said Mistry Ndiritu, who was principal of Manual until last year and is now turnaround school director for Noble Education Initiative, a nonprofit tied to Charter Schools USA.

When Manual families plan to leave to home-school, Ndiritu said, administrators provide information about homeschooling and “other opportunities within our community that allow them to attend on campus as well.”