‘Overlooked for far too long’: Eastside church partners with The Mind Trust to launch new middle school

In a pocket of Indianapolis’ eastside, a church is bringing together charter schools and Indianapolis Public Schools to build a neighborhood education pipeline from prekindergarten through 12th grade.

On Thursday morning, Eastern Star Church announced a partnership with local charter advocacy group The Mind Trust, with the goal of attracting an educator to open a middle school in Arlington Woods. The church also unveiled a location on its campus for Rooted School, a charter high school opening in 2020 with support from The Mind Trust.

“We know that our children can learn, and we know that they can produce, and so we just believe if we’re working together, we can make that happen,” said Senior Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson, Sr.

To open a middle school in Arlington Woods as early as 2022, The Mind Trust is offering a two-year fellowship for an educator to design and launch a school that will serve as a bridge between the neighborhood elementary school, Arlington Woods School 99, and Rooted School. The fellow would be paid up to $100,000 per year plus benefits.

Eastern Star, meanwhile, is supporting School 99 as it seeks to become an innovation school under Indianapolis Public Schools. Principal Tihesha Henderson recently completed a fellowship from The Mind Trust to convert the school into one that, while still considered part of the district, is run by an outside or charter operator.

The church’s collaboration continues the city’s unconventional path uniting the traditional public school district with the charter sector. And the effort is also notable because it’s driven by a community group, rather than charter advocates.

“The only way by which we can work together to address that common enemy — the systemic racism and systemic economic challenges that so many in our community face, particularly black and brown children — is by coming together,” IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said during a press conference. “So I deeply believe that it is time-out for the arguments and the wars and the disagreements. We can have those, but we can never lose sight of the fact that we have a community of children who are waiting for us to do the right thing by them.”

The partnerships also expand the charter movement on the eastside aimed at serving African-American students and students from low-income families, filling a gap left in part by the district’s recent consolidation of high schools.

Sandwiched between clusters of schools on the near-eastside and the far-eastside, Arlington Woods is nestled in the crook of I-70, I-465, and Massachusetts Avenue — “a community,” Johnson said, “that, unfortunately, has been overlooked for far too long.”

While advocates say more high-quality schools are needed in the area, new charter schools also feed a dynamic where schools can struggle to be financially sustainable as they compete for students and the funding that follows them.

The education push adds to Eastern Star’s community development efforts, called The ROCK Initiative, which has also worked to address financial security and housing needs in Arlington Woods.

Rooted School, a model replicated from New Orleans, is focused on preparing students for in-demand jobs, such as those in the tech industry, through internships and certificates. The ultimate goal is to give each student “personal pathways to financial freedom,” said local school leader Ma’at Lands.

“Hopefully, this partnership can be a signal to others that when we’re talking about transforming communities, it can’t be from the outside-in,” said The Mind Trust CEO Brandon Brown. “It has to start with folks that are most impacted by the racial injustice that we see in our society.”