Dogged by money trouble and low enrollment, Tindley will downsize its charter network

Prominent Indianapolis charter network Tindley Accelerated Schools will consolidate its five schools to three amid continued financial hurdles that have cast a shadow over the organization in recent years.

The move comes as Tindley continues to struggle to attract students in an increasingly crowded charter field, shrinking to serve 1,300 students this year — one of its lowest enrollments since the longtime local charter network began expanding in 2012.

Tindley has made several recent changes to try to draw in and retain more families, including loosening its notoriously strict discipline policies. But with decreasing enrollment and hefty loan payments, Tindley has been put on notice by its charter oversight agency to deal with its financial problems and make significant changes.

“It’s really about trying to put a model in place for long-term stability,” said Tindley Interim CEO Edreece Redmond, who took over in January after former leader Kelli Marshall stepped down.

The consolidation plan will close Tindley’s separate middle school, Tindley Collegiate, and merge the middle school with the network’s high school. That comes on the heels of last year’s decision to collapse two middle schools into one, abandoning a single-gender middle school model.

Tindley will also close one of its three elementary schools, shuttering its Tindley Genesis location near Ivy Tech Community College. Tindley will re-brand its elementary school in Avondale Meadows with the Tindley Genesis name and keep Tindley Summit running on the far-east side.

“Ultimately what’s spurring the changes is our need to make sure we’re financially stable for years to come,” Redmond said. “There’s a lot more competition out there, and we just have to do things better and more efficiently.”

Redmond said he’s “very excited about the future of Tindley.” The consolidation will relieve some facilities’ costs, and Tindley will still have the capacity to serve just as many students.

The network will likely face some layoffs with the consolidation, but Redmond said he hopes to minimize cuts to teaching positions. He did not have an estimate for the number of layoffs.

Still, some families are concerned that the effort only feeds instability that could dilute the culture they chose for their children.

“I know we can’t come up with millions, but there has to be some idea we can come up with in order to keep this school,” said Tracy Wright, 50, while waiting Tuesday afternoon to pick up her granddaughter, 13-year-old LaTaviana McMillan, from Tindley Collegiate Academy. “Our black children need a school like this. They just do.”

Wright said she’s a believer in “the Tindley way” and in the role the network plays in encouraging underrepresented students to grow academically and socially.

Although she’s concluded its extreme “College or Die” approach might not work for all students — her youngest son, Oscar Wright, attended Tindley for a time before dropping out of high school — she said the network has created a home for her family that she doesn’t intend to leave.

“Of course, at the end of the day, kids make their own choices,” Tracy Wright said. “But I want [LaTaviana] at Tindley until the day she graduates.”

Still, with the latest move, Wright worries high school students could have a bad influence on younger students, classrooms would be overcrowded, and teachers would be stretched thin.

Pam Johnson, 63, joined in this concern. Overfilled classrooms and a lack of specialized help from public school educators for her granddaughter, 15-year-old Cherika Sanford, was what spurred her to choose Tindley in the first place.

“We have our children in these schools because there are so many students in the public schools as is,” Johnson said. “You can’t have 35, 40 students in one classroom. That’s never going to be a good thing.”

Both Wright and Johnson said they did not realize the full extent of the consolidation process until their interviews with Chalkbeat, but said the details may have been lost amid frequent notices and messages from Tindley schools. Redmond said families were notified on May 17.

Though each family voiced their skepticism about the latest Tindley development, Johnson and Wright also said Tindley’s programs are one-of-a-kind in a now-crowded field of charter schools, a reality Tindley leadership said is a driving force behind the consolidation.

Tindley launched in 2004 among Indianapolis’ first charter schools, quickly garnering acclaim for its college prep model and rigorous academic and behavioral expectations for low-income black students in Avondale Meadows. It grew to six schools — walking away from plans for a seventh school in 2016 — but the network has weathered a series of challenges in recent years.

In 2015, news broke that founding CEO Marcus Robinson used the nonprofit’s dollars to fund lavish hotel stays and first-class flights on his work-related travels while the organization’s board scrambled for loans to cover the schools’ financial needs. Tindley also pulled out of running Arlington High School in 2014, saying the takeover effort was too expensive.

A 2017 audit submitted to the state shows the network owed $12.7 million in loans. Tindley sought a waiver for meeting some of the terms of the loans, then went into forbearance. Redmond said the network is working on refinancing its debts.

Tindley schools are performing well in general, with three of its locations earning A grades from the state in 2017-18. The other two  — Tindley Renaissance and Tindley Summit — scored Cs. And in 2016, four of the network’s schools ranked as top 10 charter schools on ISTEP passing rates in Indianapolis.

But reports by the mayor’s office, which oversees the Tindley schools, show the schools struggle with teacher and leadership turnover, and families have said they’re frustrated with school leaders’ lack of communication.

A site visit by the mayor’s office last year to Tindley Renaissance noted that the network is stressing a message of long-term investment to teachers, students, and parents: “To teachers the message has been: ‘If you have been with Tindley longer, you are a better teacher.’ To parents: ‘The longer you’re here, the better your child will be.’”

The site visit, however, along with a site visit to Tindley Collegiate, showed that relaxing the network’s discipline policies — rules that the previous Tindley CEO admitted were “militaristic” and potentially harmful to enrollment and student retention — hasn’t had an immediate payoff. Instead, teachers reported it was more difficult to control student behavior without strict consequences.

At Tindley Collegiate, middle school students continued to face staggering out-of-school suspension rates despite the changes and were “on track to have a record-breaking year,” according to the December site visit report. In 2017-18, Tindley Collegiate reported 363 total out-of-school suspensions, involving 138 students, according to the state.

Redmond said network leaders are reviewing policies and could make adjustments “where there are opportunities to improve.”

Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.