These new Indianapolis charter schools didn’t plan on a pandemic. They’re opening anyway.

Phalen Leadership Academy
Phalen Leadership Academies is opening an online K-12 charter school this fall. (Dylan Peers McCoy)

School leaders at Believe Circle City High School, a charter school opening soon in Indianapolis, had originally planned for students to spend Friday afternoons outside the classroom. They’d volunteer, visit colleges, and participate in neighborhood cleanups.

But many places have closed their doors or barred visitors because of the coronavirus, and some students won’t be in classrooms at all, opting for a virtual option — so school leaders are switching that experience to Zoom, rethinking what was once a defining feature of their academic model. 

“With the pandemic, all of that feels almost impossible,” Believe Director Kimberly Neal-Brannum said.

Believe is one of five charter schools in Indianapolis that are opening for the 2020-21 academic year, in addition to three Indianapolis Public Schools “innovation schools” where charter operators are taking over management of existing schools. 

These new schools face more challenges this year because of the pandemic, especially with enrolling students as families are preoccupied with a host of other concerns. School leaders who’ve spent years designing creative academic models are modifying aspects of their plans to catch up students from the spring, while pitching their personalized approaches as uniquely suited to connect with students in this disruptive environment. 

The new schools see enrollment as a particular challenge in Indianapolis, which has a saturated school market that pressures schools to compete for students. Schools receive funding for each student they enroll, so leaders are under pressure to attract enough students to be financially sustainable. 

Believe school staff members weren’t able to canvass for two months, and they suspect families were preoccupied with pandemic-related hardships that prevented them from enrolling. They anticipate 75 to 90 students this year instead of a target 90 to 115, Neal-Brannum said.

However, school officials at another new charter, Rooted School Indianapolis, have seen enrollment numbers surpass their goal. Before the coronavirus, Rooted leaders selected classrooms of about 200 square feet and a 1:15 teacher-student ratio, so now they’re confident that students will be able to practice social distancing. They’re opening with 60 ninth graders this fall and will add a class of 60 students each year to gradually populate the high school. 

“We have the space, we have the technology and the resources to be able to help our students succeed and feel comfortable in this environment,” founder Ma’at Lands said.

As student well-being gains attention because of the pandemic’s effect on families, leaders of a charter called the PATH School are stressing their commitment to social and emotional development. The PATH School, which is overhauling Indianapolis Public Schools’ Stephen Foster School 67, will provide teachers with six days of training on social and emotional development to help ensure students feel safe when they return to school buildings, school leader Alicia Hervey said. 

Here are the charter schools opening in Indianapolis:

Believe Circle City High School

Believe will use dual enrollment, in high school and community college or technical school, to jump-start high school students to a career certification or associate degree. Students will complete most of their high school credits in grades nine and 10 and will start taking classes through a local community college in grades 11 and 12. 

Believe is founded by people of color who are “invested in ensuring that people of color see themselves at all levels of education,” Neal-Brannum said. As racial justice protests spread across the nation in recent months, school leaders revamped their ninth grade literature course to focus on social justice and are weaving discussions about the current civil rights battle into other curriculum.

Rooted School Indianapolis

Rooted School is opening at Eastern Star Church in Arlington Woods. The church will offer families support like financial aid and food to help children focus on their education. 

Rooted’s academic model focuses on technology, and through industry partnerships, students can work toward technology certifications and paid internships. School leaders hope that students will graduate with both a college offer and a full-time employment offer. 

They plan to provide university student tutors, personalized plans, and extra support outside school hours to address learning losses during the pandemic. At least 60% of enrolled students are taking summer classes, Lands said. 

The PATH School

The IPS board voted earlier this year to restart the near northside’s School 67, or Stephen Foster, under The PATH School’s management in an effort to improve its chronically low test scores. The decision was initially met with passionate resistance from some parents, who worried about losing staff with whom they’d already built connections. Some of those opponents were eventually won over once they learned more about the new operator. 

PATH stands for Purpose, Achievement, Talent, Heart. Among planned changes, teachers will move to content-specific teaching, meaning students will have different teachers for each discipline. In an expansion of support for students and teachers, the new leaders will increase school social workers from one to three, and instructional coaches will help teachers develop skills by subject.

Adelante Schools

Adelante Schools will take over management of Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School on the south side. The campus will remain a K-8 innovation school, which means it’s overseen by Indianapolis Public Schools but managed independently. Donnan was previously run by for-profit operator Charter Schools USA, which was recently ousted from managing Donnan and two other Indianapolis takeover schools. 

The new operator is a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis and led by Eddie Rangel and Matthew Rooney.

Of the other schools formerly run by Charter Schools USA, Howe High School has closed and existing charter school Christel House Academy will run Manual High School and later move its south campus into the building in 2021.

HIM By HER Collegiate School for the Arts

This school will open for K-2 with a focus on serving students from marginalized families. Its model centers around academic rigor, character development, and a strong school community. 

HIM by HER stands for Helping Improve Mankind by Healing Every Race. The non-profit was founded in 2014 by Michelle Christian Dunn and Harry C. Dunn III, an Indianapolis homicide detective whose goal is to target at-risk children and counteract the school-to-prison pipeline. The charter purchased the school building that formerly operated as the IPS Forest Manor Professional Development Center on the east side.

GEO Next Generation Academy

At this east side high school in partnership with Indiana Black Expo, students take dual-credit classes at Ivy Tech Community College for free. They can start taking college classes in ninth grade and will be able to earn an associate degree before graduating high school. The campus will open this fall for grades nine to 11 and add 12th grade in 2021. 

GEO also runs Gary Middle College, and its 21st Century Charter School in Gary will function as a model for the new Indianapolis campus. The charter network previously ran two schools in Indianapolis, but both were moved to other operators before closing in 2015. 

Phalen Leadership Academy Elementary at Louis B. Russell School 48

This neighborhood school was managed by IPS until this year. IPS hired Phalen to run the campus as an innovation restart school. The pre-K-6 campus will stay in the same building but under new leadership.

Phalen Virtual Leadership Academy

Phalen Leadership Academies will run an all-online K-12 school. Phalen’s students can also access online enrichment programs, field trips, and classes in art, physical education, and science and technology. 

The school will offer a 25-day boot camp in the fall to remedy learning loss and will continue online learning through the summer. Students will take scheduled classes with teachers in real time.

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