Using charters to fix ailing IPS schools yields instability and inconsistent academic results

Early in the 2022-23 school year, Morrise Harbour walked the hallways of a school that he had completely rebranded.

The “Liberty Grove” sign outside the Elder Diggs School 42 building and the new interior paint job marked the latest effort to turn around the K-6 school with roughly 230 students. 

But Harbour isn’t the first charter leader who has tried to change School 42’s trajectory. The other one’s tenure didn’t go so well

In 2017, Ignite Achievement Academy took over School 42 as part of the Indianapolis Public Schools so-called “restart” initiative to improve its academic performance. But five years later, just 4% of students were proficient in English and 4% were proficient in math on Indiana’s ILEARN tests. 

Indianapolis Public Schools ended its agreement with Ignite at the end of 2021-22, following a decline in student performance and enrollment. Harbour’s group took over the school last August.

“It’s surprising, to a certain extent, that there are so many students that are just not meeting the expectation,” Harbour said. “And then I also think about, ‘Well, where as the adults did we let the families and students down?’”

Liberty Grove Schools became the new charter operator to take over Elder Diggs School 42 in August 2022 after another charter operator, Ignite Achievement Academy, failed to turn the school around. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat Indiana)

Since 2015, IPS has brought on 10 charter operators to turn around nine of its chronically low-performing schools, categorizing them as restart schools within its Innovation Network of schools that are part of the district but have greater autonomy than traditional schools. But their test scores, even when COVID’s disruptions are accounted for, have for the most part improved only slightly or not at all. Two restart operators have been replaced. One restart school has closed. And no school has actually exited restart status. 

As local charter schools increase in number and size, the district’s restart model is one way to examine whether the autonomy provided charter schools truly does turn around poorly performing schools. And the 2023 state assessments — which are ramping up in March and April — will provide another stress test for these restart schools. 

Before the pandemic hit, passage rates on the state’s third grade IREAD test for the four restart schools that had operated for more than one year increased in some years and decreased in others. The share of students reaching proficiency in both English and math on state exams increased at most restart schools from 2021 to 2022, although the same is true in general for schools statewide as test scores rebounded from pandemic-driven declines. 

The state’s switch to a new ILEARN test in 2019, along with the pandemic, affected schools too much to allow for straightforward answers about whether restart schools are working, said Joshua Glazer, associate professor of education policy at George Washington University. Yet he said some things about the effort, like the “vast majority” of students who aren’t proficient on state tests, are clear.

“I don’t think it would be responsible to say, ‘Oh look, these guys have failed,’” said Glazer, who has studied Tennessee’s initiative to pair low-performing schools with charter operators. “But I think what is right to do and what is fair is to ask them [is]: What are you doing to respond to these numbers?”

IPS has no uniform set of goals to decide whether to renew Innovation Network agreements for  its restart schools. Instead, the district relies on factors like enrollment and staff turnover when making recommendations about their status to the school board. Innovation agreements for these schools generally include a section on accountability metrics — yet those also vary from school to school. 

Reaching a sweeping conclusion about the success of restart schools is complicated, IPS officials say. They argue that each turnaround effort brings its own challenges that might not neatly fit one narrative or set of objectives. 

And the Mind Trust, a nonprofit which has helped incubate restart charter operators, argued that restart schools are collectively still outperforming the district’s internal turnaround effort for its lowest-performing schools known as Emerging Schools. 

At Liberty Grove, Harbour is trying to change the experience dramatically for students. 

“What we want is for the students to know what good teaching and learning feels like, looks like,” he said. “And when they’re going on to high school — or middle school in this case — they’re informed about those things.”

Measuring success varies between schools

IPS has been using the Innovation model as a turnaround strategy since 2015, when it reached a restart agreement with Phalen Leadership Academy to run Francis Scott Key School 103. 

Each decision to start or renew an agreement with a restart charter school looks different.

When the school board approved the Innovation agreement with Phalen Leadership Academy to run Louis B. Russell School 48, IPS did not yet have performance goals for the school finalized. Its agreement with Global Prep, however, referenced performance goals set forth in the school’s charter. 

When staff recommended the renewal of Kindezi Academy, which became a restart school in 2016-17, they highlighted below-average attendance and staff retention, but also a “strong building culture.” After Kindezi backed out of the district’s one-year renewal option, the district closed the school.

When the district chose not to renew its agreement with Urban Act Academy in 2022, which ran Washington Irving School 14, the percentage of students proficient in both math and English on the ILEARN had risen to above pre-pandemic levels. Even so, just 1.6% of students were proficient in 2022. 

Each school has unique factors that officials must consider, said Brian Dickey, the district’s director of Innovation schools.

“All these pieces come together to inform a recommendation that is not just one resolute data point,” he said. 

To some, the disparate fates of these schools demonstrate that the restart charter process hasn’t worked as well as it could.

The renewal process has been inconsistently applied from school to school, said Brandon Brown, the CEO of the Mind Trust.

“There needs to be a comprehensive process that is well articulated and consistently used,” he said. “Because if not, there is less trust in the consistency of the renewal decisions if they’re not using a common process each time.”

A bill in the legislature may make the renewal process more uniform. House Bill 1591 would require Innovation agreements to include the process by which the board would follow when determining whether to renew an agreement. 

For some restart schools, though, success amounts to more than just numbers. 

At Phalen 103, the district’s oldest restart school, Principal Matt Rimer oversaw a culture shift, a change that district staff highlighted when they recommended renewing the agreement with Phalen in 2019.

Yet the percentage of students reaching proficiency in both English and math stood at just 2.1% in 2019, four years after Phalen became a restart school. And Phalen’s IREAD test scores over the years have been up and down. 

Still, among the restart schools, Phalen 103 had among the highest growth rates in IREAD pass rates and combined reading and math ILEARN scores from 2021 to 2022. 

This year, the school has a new motto: “Never be satisfied.”

“Obviously our goal is to be the same academically as our counterparts in every part of the state,” Rimer said.

Parents attend an open house at Phalen Leadership Academy at Francis Scott Key School 103 before school starts in August 2022. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Navigating the changes new school operators can bring

When Mariama Shaheed talks to Global Prep Academy students, she switches easily between English and Spanish. 

The dual-language school joined the Innovation Network in 2016-17, and its test scores have improved recently.

IREAD pass rates are the highest they’ve been in four years at 63%. And the percentage of students scoring proficient in both English and math has inched above pre-pandemic levels, rising from roughly 5.6% to 7.3%. 

But that progress hasn’t been easy. 

Global Prep took over Riverside School 44, a pillar in the primarily Black community of Riverside that generations of residents had attended. 

“When you talk about Spanish immersion, there’s all these fears associated with: What does that mean for the history and culture of Riverside 44?” Shaheed said. “And so a lot of listening was a part of that process.”

Amid the mistrust, Shaheed had to turn around a school that frequently had been rated F on the state’s A-F accountability system. 

“It was the hardest work I’ve ever done as an educator,” she said. “You’re changing culture, you’re changing mindsets. The only thing that was stable was the student body — We were all new. They were not.”

Elementary school students walk in the halls of Global Prep Academy in December 2022. Global Prep was tasked by Indianapolis Public Schools with turning around Riverside School 44. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Shaheed attributes the school’s success to a mission-driven approach and a focus on recruiting the right people. 

“It was the first time I felt like I had the real freedom to recruit for mission,” she said.

Since Global Prep’s launch, the demographics at School 44 have shifted from a majority of Black students to about 62% Latino and 35% Black, she said. Shaheed hopes to still attract more Black families to the dual-language school through community outreach, letting families in the area know that this school is still open to them despite a change in programming. 

Seven miles away, on the district’s south side, Adelante Schools took over Emma Donnan as a K-8 restart school in 2020-21, during the middle of the pandemic.  

But Eddie Rangel, Adelante’s executive director, also had to rebuild community trust in the school following problems with the previous operator. Eighth graders, for instance, did not have any foundation in basic math operations, such as multiplication or division, he said. 

Two and a half years later, Rangel feels Adelante has established the trust it was seeking. 

Ja’Quan Keys, center, reviews science work with eighth grade English language learner students at the Emma Donnan K-8 school on Feb. 15, 2023. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Academic results on IREAD and ILEARN have also improved. Rangel attributes the growth to teacher and professional development, not just a good curriculum. 

“It started with the foundations of selecting high-quality instructional materials, but then it also went to developing teachers and then progress monitoring,” he said. 

Getting parents and teachers to believe

The data on restart charter schools, though somewhat limited, can provide different conclusions for charter allies and critics.

Restart schools are still outperforming Emerging Schools on state tests, the Mind Trust said: Roughly 3% of students in all Emerging Schools reached proficiency in both English and math last year, compared to about 5% of students in restart schools, according to the group’s analysis.

Dickey of IPS said he hopes that there will be more clarity going forward as the pandemic’s effects recede. 

”We are now hopefully in a state where we are now moving out of that and need to be able to ascertain where our schools are trending in that regard,” he said.

At Liberty Grove, Harbour wants longer class times and uses what he calls a “highly vetted curriculum” that he has adopted in the past. He’s also focused on hiring well and monitoring progress throughout the year.

Like other restart schools, Liberty Grove is starting from a place of struggle. But some parents and staff are sticking with Harbour because they’re impressed with his experience.

Makeba Averitte, an art teacher, worked at Ignite for five years but chose to stay on through the transition to Liberty Grove. 

“Definitely the relationships with the kids and family is very important,” said Averitte, whose fifth grade daughter attends the school. “They see someone who is there for them.”

Harbour has a clear plan to create a successful school at Liberty Grove. Whether the restart charter model is the surefire panacea for underperforming schools, though, is not so clear to him. 

“Is the solution to bring in a whole bunch of new charters to change?” Harbour said. “I think that’s still to be determined.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at