Conflict over all-girls charter school in Washington Township reflects ongoing school choice tensions

A building with a large top and a parking lot in the foreground and a blue sky with clouds in the background.
The all-girls charter school Girls IN STEM Academy is planned to open in the former Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Washington Township, seen here on Sunday, February 25, 2023, if city officials approve the property to be used as a school. (Eric Weddle / WFYI)

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This article was originally published by WFYI.

Some Washington Township parents want to block an all-girls charter school from opening, at a moment when tensions around school choice and access to equitable education are fermenting throughout Marion County.

The Girls IN STEM Academy would open in the boundary of the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, in the northern part of the county.

It would also be the first public K-8 school of its kind for the state — a curriculum designed between the high-profile Paramount Schools of Excellence, Purdue Polytechnic High Schools and the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana.

The school, operated by Paramount, aims to close the gender and racial gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics achievement while preparing the students for high school, college, and careers in STEM fields, according to the planned curriculum.

But as students enroll for the 2024-25 academic year, some local residents and district officials hope they still have a chance to stop the doors from opening through the county’s political process that continues this week.

Last fall Paramount purchased a former church on 10 acres at 5136 Michigan Road for the academy campus, but the site must be rezoned from religious to education use for the school to open.

Those opposed hope their concerns will be considered at a Thursday hearing of the Metropolitan Development Commission. City staff recently issued a report with a recommendation to approve the rezoning as long as changes and plans are made related to traffic.

The Indianapolis City-County Council will have the final say, if the development commission signs off on the change and makes a recommendation for the body to approve.

But Councilor Carlos Perkins, who represents District 8 where the building is located, could potentially request additional public hearings on the rezoning. Perkins said people are talking to him in both support and opposition of the school.

“Whenever you have a request for rezoning, that will impact a broader community,” Perkins told WFYI last week. “So what we’re seeing now is the process that was created for individuals to feel like they have an equal voice in the process.”

Pushback is result of ongoing school tensions

The pushback to Girls IN STEM comes amid nearly two years of ongoing friction in Indianapolis between school choice advocates and many who support traditional public schools.

In that time, Pike Township families and some elected officials fought against plans for a proposed Purdue Polytechnic High School and a school with ties to a conservative Christian college. Organizers for both charter schools eventually sought locations outside the township school boundary.

Leaders at Indianapolis Public Schools were pressured by local independent charter schools and the chamber of commerce to drop plans for a property-tax referendum after the district refused to share revenue with the charter schools that enroll thousands of city students.

Currently, IPS is in a court battle with the Indiana Department of Education over whether it will be forced to sell a closed school building to a charter school for $1. And the district school board faces a renewed effort from families and special-interest groups to partner with charter schools as a solution to address academic disparities between White students and students of color.

In this General Assembly, Indianapolis Democratic Sen. Andrea Hunley proposed legislation to limit who can authorize charter schools in the city. The bill was not called for a hearing in the Republican-controlled Statehouse.

And during a January neighborhood meeting about Paramount’s rezoning request for the Girls IN STEM site, around 80 people attended, including elected officials, with many speaking out against the school.

“It’s frustrating to have yet another confusing process to go through to figure out if there is any way to prevent this from happening,” said Shelley Clark, a member of the Washington Township Parent Council Network, a group opposed to the school. “So we’re following along with the district in terms of paying attention to what happens at this rezoning hearing, and figuring out how we can have our voices heard, because there has not been that opportunity in this process.”

School leaders, families make case for all-girl STEM school

Tierra Ruffin heard of the charter school through her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and was intrigued. Her daughter, a second grader in Avon Community School district, has taken a strong liking to science and math. Ruffin plans on sending her daughter to the Girls in STEM Academy this summer for third grade.

“She is very creative at home, you know, and in regards to math her testing scores are high, and just the innovative ideas that she has,” Ruffin said. “I really think [this school] could be applicable to her learning style and her creativity.”

Ruffin will need to drive her daughter to the school from Avon.

Tara Gustin, the Chief Operations Officer at Paramount, said the Washington Township site was chosen for its centralized location. The school is located a few miles from other Marion County school districts, including Pike and Wayne townships, and IPS. Gustin expects families might come from all parts of Indianapolis and nearby suburbs, like Ruffin.

“Being able to have the one gender, being able to feel safe, belonging, and hopefully be able to really open up and explore and learn together — I think that makes it unique,” Gustin said. “And I think parents are starting to look for that in and around Indianapolis.”

A bird's eye view of a couple blocks with lines around property.
The property boundaries of 5136 Michigan Road from a map detail by the City of Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission. (Courtesy of City of Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission)

Last year the charter authorization board at Trine University, a private institution in Angola near the state’s border with Michigan, approved Paramount’s application for a charter to open Girls in STEM Academy. Charter schools are public schools that are granted a contract to operate by one of several authorizers in Indiana, including Trine.

A charter school is directly overseen by a board that is not elected by voters. Most state funding for charters comes from per-student tuition support. The schools do not receive local property-taxes to support transportation and building expenses like public school districts.

In Paramount’s application, it makes a case that it can offer a higher quality education than what is available nearby and especially for economically disadvantaged and Black students. The application compares the 2023 ILEARN scores from three Paramount schools in Indianapolis to those of Indianapolis Public Schools and Washington Township Schools. Paramount’s scores for Black and Hispanic students passing the English and math parts of the assessments are considerably higher than either district.

At Paramount’s three Indianapolis schools, Black students passed the ILEARN at an average rate of 43.1 percent. At Washington Township the rate was 9.8 percent, and IPS was at 5.4 percent, according to state data.

However, each district enrolls many more students than Paramount’s 1,300 students at its three brick-and-mortar Indianapolis schools. Paramount also runs an online school with around 160 students.

“Academically, the collective community need for a high quality academic option for students and families on the northside of Indianapolis is evident,” they state in the application.

Others question need for another school option

But officials with Washington Township Schools are questioning if there is a need for another school in the area, even one as unique as an all-girls charter. Around 10,500 students attend the district now.

In the neighborhood rezoning meeting last month many spoke against the school. Sean Taylor, Associate Superintendent of Washington Township Schools, attended the meeting. He and others are concerned a new public school in the area would divide Washington Township families and take students from the district.

Girls In STEM Academy will be located one mile south of Crooked Creek Elementary.

“Those who are against school choice will say that more option creates more division,” Taylor said in an interview with WFYI. “It fragments communities, it challenges resources within a community. And so because of that people have a lot of angst around opening up schools in this manner.”

Some pushback is less about the school opening and more about the way it was introduced. State law requires the authorizer to hold a public hearing about the proposed charter within the school corporation where it would be located. If there is no location, the law requires a public hearing within the county where the proposed charter school would be located.

But Washington Township staff and families feel like they were left in the dark because no meeting was held near the charter.

Bill Turner, secretary of the Washington Township school board, said the board was never contacted by Paramount during the authorization process or purchase of the building in October. He found out about Girls IN STEM from the media.

“The transparency of this whole process, to not even contact the district, when you have multiple touchpoints through the Girl Scout organization within our district, to not even bring it up to our district is disingenuous to me,” Turner said. “And so that alone puts up alarm bells saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, they’re gonna do this in the beginning, what’s going to happen later on?’”

A red and black sign lays on grass with a red flag to the left of it. Large black words read "Public Hearing" with lots of smaller words.
A public notice for the rezoning request of 5136 Michigan Road lies on the grass of the property on Sunday, February 25, 2023. An examiners hearing on the request to change the zoning to education use for the Girls IN STEM Academy is set for Feb. 29, 2023. (Eric Weddle / WFYI)

Gustin said when Paramount applied to Trine University for a charter, they had not yet decided on a location. “So we did not reach out to any districts that we were even interested in prior to that because we didn’t know where we were going to be located,” she said.

Turner said that if a school wanted to improve learning for students in Washington Township, he wishes they reached out to the district first.

“We are a district who prides itself on trying to do what’s best for all children,” Turner said. “If there’s a better idea out there, if there’s a better curriculum, if there’s a better way to educate students, whether it’s STEM or whatever the case may be, we listen to it. And if there’s something we can do, we try to incorporate it. But we never had a chance.”

The Girls in STEM Academy is projecting an enrollment of 125 students in grades K-6 in the first year. The projection increased to nearly 300 students in grades K-8 by 2028-29.

“So yes, it’s concerning about losing students,” Turner said, about the possibility students will leave the district for the charter. “But it’s more about not only losing the students, but the funding that goes along with those students, to be honest with you.”

Others in the community have raised concern about increased traffic along Michigan Road, and that the all-girl student body is inherently exclusive.

Parents in opposition to the school also point to a lack of local oversight with the school’s authorization, as well as a failure to plan before purchasing the building and getting approval from Trine.

What’s next?

A Metropolitan Development Commission hearing examiner will hold a meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday in the public assembly room in the City-County Building for rezoning requests, including the site for Girls In STEM.

An MDC staff analysis submitted to the examiner ahead of the hearing recommends approval of the rezoning that would allow for reuse of the existing church building and construction of an additional building for more classrooms.

“... staff did not find the proposed school use to be out of line with the context of the surrounding area considering that the previous religious use had limited business hours and days when events, gatherings, and the like would take place,” the report said.

A Paramount representative will present the rezoning request at the hearing. The hearing examiner will make a recommendation, then the MDC may vote to approve, continue, deny, or dismiss the petition, according to the city’s rezoning petition rules.

If the MDC approves this rezoning and makes a recommendation to the City-County Council the council will vote on final approval, or the councilor of the district where the building is located can call for an additional public hearing before a final council vote.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Girls IN STEM academy would not be the first charter school to open in Washington Township.

WFYI education editor Eric Weddle contributed to this story.

Contact WFYI Marion County education reporter Sydney Dauphinais at sdauphinais@wfyi.org.

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