Amid enrollment concerns, state charter board rejects two Indianapolis schools

The Indiana Charter School Board voted down two charter applicants Tuesday after raising concerns that they would not be able to attract enough students to be viable in a city where many schools are already under-enrolled. The board also voted in favor of a third charter school, but not by a large enough margin to grant approval.

“With Indianapolis schools now, we always start with financial sustainability,” said James Betley, the board’s executive director. “Personally, I think that many areas of Indianapolis are saturated.”

The two schools rejected outright by all of the board members present intended to begin serving kindergarten through fifth grade in 2020-21 and eventually expand to eighth grade. HIM By HER hoped to take over space in the Martindale-Brightwood area and serve 540 students when fully enrolled. Indianapolis STEAM Academy planned to open in Avondale Meadows, eventually enrolling 450 students. Both schools were back in front of the board after being rebuffed over concerns with their applications previously.

“Particularly in Indianapolis, enrollment is incredibly difficult,” said board chairman Josh Owens. Financially, “being under enrollment can really greatly strain.”

Since charter schools launched in Indiana nearly two decades ago, dozens have opened in Indianapolis. In addition to the state charter board, proposed Indianapolis charter schools can be approved and overseen by universities or the mayor’s office, the latter of which is currently considering applications for three schools.

And in a strategy that has attracted national attention, Indianapolis Public Schools also partners with charter schools, which run a large share of its so-called “innovation schools.”

But there is growing concern that the city may have more schools than it can sustain. Last year, Indianapolis Public Schools closed nearly half of its high school campuses, and more school closures are likely forthcoming in the cash-strapped district.

Despite enrollment concerns, on Tuesday the board staff recommended approving a third school from Geo Academies, which runs schools in Gary and Louisiana. The school did not win approval however, because it needs four votes in favor to receive a charter. Three of the five board members present supported the school, one recused herself, and one voted against it. The school will likely return to the board in the summer when more board members are present.

Geo Academies previously operated two schools in Indianapolis. One of the schools lost its charter from the mayor’s office. Both schools went on to receive new charters from Ball State University and a new manager but were eventually closed in 2015. At the time Mayor Greg Ballard’s office decided against renewing the charter, the mayor said it was a result of chronically bad academic performance. But Geo Academies President Kevin Teasley said that other schools performed worse and that the decision was motivated by politics.

“We have proven over the last seven years that we’ve got a successful model,” Teasley said Tuesday. “We have a very clear strategy as to how we unfold what we do.”

Geo is modeling the Indianapolis school on a campus in Gary that has had some success. The 21st Century Charter school has a C letter-grade from the state. Students often earn many college credits before graduating, because high schoolers take courses on a college campus alongside traditional college students.

The school is planning for two Indianapolis campuses: One will be part of the Indiana Black Expo headquarters planned for the Warren Township district on the east side; the other would be near the downtown Ivy Tech community college campus, where students would take classes, according to the charter application.

The Indianapolis school aims to open in 2020-21 with about 150 freshman and grow to 600-700 high school students. Despite the tough competition for students in Indianapolis, Teasley said he expected the school to meet enrollment goals because of its college partnership model.

“Enrollment is always a concern for everybody,” he said. “We’d be silly to say it’s not a concern, but we’ll work hard, and I think the model that we have is attractive and attracts students.”

But board member Jill Robinson Kramer cautioned Geo’s projections might be overly sunny, noting that low-enrollment has led to charter closures in the past. “I appreciate your efforts and the optimism,” she said, adding. “Most of the organizations who have come before us have come before us optimistic.”