Plan for all-girls charter school clears major rezoning hurdle in Washington Township

A building with a large top and a parking lot in the foreground and a blue sky with clouds in the background.
Before the all-girls charter school Girls IN STEM Academy can open in the former Witherspoon Presbyterian Church at 5136 Michigan Road, a rezoning request must be approved by the City-County Council. (Eric Weddle / WFYI)

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This article was originally published by WFYI.

Organizers behind an all-girls charter school passed a major hurdle Thursday in a petition process to rezone property in Washington Township for the campus.

Around 100 people showed up to the hearing at the City-County Council building for what’s become a contentious fight between school choice advocates and traditional public school supporters.

But the hearing examiner for the Metropolitan Development Commission said all that mattered was the proper use of land before making a recommendation to approve a former church campus on Michigan Road for use by Girls IN STEM Academy.

The contentious hearing was another step of a lengthy rezoning process that ends with a final vote by the City-County Council.

Paramount Schools of Excellence purchased the former church on 10 acres at 5136 Michigan Road for the academy campus last fall but the site must be rezoned from religious to education use for it to open. The all-girls schools, a collaboration between Purdue Polytechnic High Schools and the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, would offer a curriculum based around science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Enrollment for the school is open but Paramount now says even if rezoning is approved a temporary building will be needed for the 2024-25 school year because the campus won’t be ready. The Girls IN STEM Academy is projecting an enrollment of 125 students in grades K-6 in the first year. The school is planning to expand to K-8 by 2028-29.

Most of the crowd at the Thursday hearing was in support of the school, some wearing purple “Girls IN STEM” T-Shirts. Leaders at Paramount Schools have said they can offer better educational opportunities than what is available nearby in northern Marion County and especially for economically disadvantaged and Black students.

Those at the hearing echoed the same sentiments. Council Majority Leader Maggie Lewis described the charter school as an important opportunity for girls.

“It is so important to recognize that our Black and brown girls do need special attention,” Lewis said.

Those against the petition, cited issues related to rezoning property, such as septic system insufficiencies and the condition of the building.

Jonathan Hughes, an attorney for MSD Washington Township, cited a lack of transparency on how the space will be used and warned it will cause an overflow of traffic on Michigan Road.

“With a church, primary traffic is on Sundays,” Hughes said. “This school’s primary traffic will be during rush hour.”

An analysis about the site submitted to the examiner ahead of the hearing did not find major concerns related to traffic.

Hearing examiner Judy Weerts Hall recommended approval of the rezoning and cited the positive reuse of a vacant building.

“My job is to listen to petitions that are land use matters,” Hall said. “In this particular case, it’s a rezoning petition. I am considering solely whether a rezoning for a school is appropriate here. I don’t feel like it’s relevant for me if it’s a public school, if it’s a charter school, or if it’s a private school.”

The Metropolitan Development Commission will take up the rezoning request for Girls IN STEM Academy at its March 20 meeting.

Last year, the charter authorization board at Trine University, a private institution in Angola, 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. A charter school is directly overseen by a board that is not elected by voters.

Officials at Washington Township schools have criticized the lack of communication by Trine and Paramount around the opening of the school in the district boundary.

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

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