Future of Schools

Indiana has seen a burst of new charter schools since 2011 law

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Tindley Accelerated Schools now has a girls-only middle school that scored well on ISTEP.

The number of charter schools in Indiana has grown rapidly since a 2011 state law passed expanding authority to approve and oversee them to new sponsors, and the acceleration looks likely to continue over the next two years.

Up to 14 charter schools were approved in recent months to open this fall, if they can find buildings and overcome other start-up challenges.

Even coupled with another recent trend toward tougher oversight — four charter schools were closed down this year for poor performance or other problems — the net gain could push the number to 86 charter schools statewide next year.

That is a significant jump: just 49 charter schools were open statewide when the law expanding charter school sponsorship passed four years ago, meaning the potential gain equates to about 75 percent more charter schools.

Starting slow, gaining momentum

The first 10 charter schools opened in Indiana in 2002 after a years-long battle in the Indiana legislature ultimately produced a law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts.

For the first decade after 2002, an average of about five new charter schools opened each year, and schools rarely closed except in a few high-profile cases in which sponsors found they were seriously mismanaged. That was relatively slow growth when compared to neighboring states such as Ohio and Michigan, where far more charter schools opened each year.

But over the past three years, new Indiana charter schools have opened at almost twice the rate of the first decade: an average of about nine new charter schools per year.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office has expanded its stable of charter schools quickly in that time. In 2011, Ballard sponsored 18 charter schools. This year he sponsored 29 charter schools. One of those schools will close and another is converting to a private school.

The city could be sponsoring even more charter schools, but under Ballard and recently-departed Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, the city ramped up accountability and pushed low-scoring charter schools to close or merge with more successful schools.

In all, five mayor-sponsored charter schools that were open in 2011 have ceased operations.

“We focused on replication of things that worked and accountability for those that didn’t,” Kloth said. “We enforced high barriers to entry and true accountability for results.”

The faster pace for opening new charter schools is expected to continue statewide. Besides the 14 planned to open this fall among all nine Indiana sponsors, another seven are approved to open across the state in 2016 and 2017.

New sponsors emerge

Two new forces that are helping to drive the expansion are a direct result of the 2011 law: the Indiana State Charter School Board and three private universities that have become charter school sponsors.

Sponsors grant charter schools the ability to operate, monitor their performance and can close those that fall short of their promises.

Before 2011, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s two primary charter school sponsors, along with a handful of local school districts sponsoring just a few others. The legislature that year created the state charter board with the authority to sponsor new schools, and allowed private universities to sponsor charter schools as well.

While debating the 2011 bill, lawmakers who supported the idea often suggested well-known private universities such as Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. None of them has ever done so.

Instead, the three private colleges that are now active charter school sponsors are less well-known.

Trine University in Angola will oversee five schools next year in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis; Grace College in Winona Lake sponsors a school in Fort Wayne and a school in Dugger; and Calumet College of St. Joseph sponsors one school each in Hammond and Gary.

The state charter board also has aggressively approved new schools since its founding. Nine new charter schools approved by that board opened since 2012.

Closing schools that don’t measure up

One sponsor that has been a major force in Indiana since the dawn of charter schools — Ball State — has closed more schools than it opened over the past three years.

As a result, Ball State will oversee just 29 charter schools this fall — three fewer than it did two years ago.

In part, the university’s tougher approach was driven by deep criticism of Ball State that came in 2011 and 2012 for failing to take action against schools with low scores. Since then, the atmosphere has changed, said Bob Marra, who directs charter schools for Ball State.

In fact, earlier this spring, Marra was invited to speak about high quality charter school sponsoring along with representatives from Ballard’s office at a National Association of Charter School Authorizers event. The group is known as a strong advocate for closing low-scoring schools.

“I don’t think I would have been there if it wasn’t for the work we had done the last couple of years,” Marra said.

Even so, critics of the 2011 expansion of charter school sponsors have argued that the new law paved the way for “sponsor shopping,” a practice where low-scoring schools try to jump to new sponsors before they are shut down.

That has occurred in the last three years.

Three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades — Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis and Charter School of the Dunes in Gary — managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close. Timothy L. Johnson Academy and Imagine Life Science Academy West are now sponsored by Trine University and Charter School of the Dunes by Calumet College.

In some cases, it surprised Ball State to learn schools it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.

A law passed earlier this year aims to rectify that problem. House Bill 1636, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, requires that any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor must alert the current sponsor in writing.

The goal is to ensure that sponsors know when schools they oversee seek either to change to a new sponsor or start another charter school with a different sponsor. But the bill does not prevent a new sponsor from taking on a school in danger of closing.


Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office (27 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Christel House DORS West in Indianapolis

Tindley Genesis Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana College Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East in Indianapolis

Marion Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis

New schools for 2016-17:

Global Prep Academy in Indianapolis

Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis

New schools for 2017-18:

A second Herron High School in Indianapolis

Ball State University (28 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Mays Community Academy in Rushville

Indiana State Charter School Board (9 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Carpe Diem Northwest in Indianapolis

Carpe Diem Shadeland in Indianapolis

Early Career Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center in South Bend

Excel Center in Noblesville

New schools for 2016-17:

ACE Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Global Leadership Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

New schools for 2017-18:

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

Trine University (3 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Career Academy Middle School in South Bend

Success Academy Primary School in South Bend

Grace College (1 school sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Dugger Community School in Dugger

Calumet College of St. Joseph (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Evansville Vanderburgh School District (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Daleville School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

Lafayette Public School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly ten-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a Finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators. 

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters. Dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, the idea of smaller schools with enrollments of less than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation blamed huge, underfunded and impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.   

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models.

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, a five-year grant for $27 million from the General Motors Foundation was awarded to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school. 

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s Academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.

Future of Schools

Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Anna Chaney is a parent at School 14, which will be restarted as an innovation school.

Anna Chaney didn’t expect to love School 14. She only sent her daughter because her family became homeless and it was the neighborhood school for their shelter.

But the school soon became an important part of their lives. It has a close-knit community, she said, and there is an abundance of help for families, such as a food pantry, after-school programs, and Christmas gifts.

“Once I was on my feet and able to leave the shelter, we made sure to find a house that was in the boundary,” she said.

But last year, Chaney and other parents at the school got a painful shock: After years of low test scores, Indianapolis Public Schools was considering taking drastic action at School 14 by restarting it as an innovation school. Under the plan, which was approved by the school board last week, the school will be managed by a charter operator, with a new principal, and the teachers will likely be replaced — a seismic shift for a school that has long been a place of stability for students living with instability at home.

School 14, which is also known as Washington Irving, has gotten several failing grades, with a brief period of D grades, over the last six years. But many of its parents were nonetheless surprised that the school had struggled on state tests for years.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think their school was broken,” said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, a nearby community center that works with many families at the school. “From a parents’ perspective, it felt like it was a stable environment that people wanted to have their children in.”

By restarting School 14, Indianapolis Public Schools is betting that the potential for improved test scores outweighs the risk of compromising the supportive role the school has played for families.

“We value consistency but at the same time, we are obligated and responsible for academic excellence,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “We are not getting the results from the school in terms of performance. It’s one of those situations where we clearly need to go in a different direction.”

For parents at the school, the situation is more complicated. Chaney, for one, said that she was probably blinded to low test scores by everything else the school offered her family, and she now favors the restart.

“We love that school so much that we were kind of scared to step up and say, ‘yeah, we need to change some stuff,’ ” said Chaney, a member of the parent organizing group Stand for Children, which has supported many innovation school conversations.

School 14, a striking brick facade that stands out from the residences surrounding it on the near eastside, sits at a crossroads of Indianapolis’ wealth and poverty. With a boundary that stretches across vast swaths of downtown, its neighborhood includes the picturesque houses of Chatham-Arch and Woodruff Place — and some of the city’s homeless shelters, including the Julian Center and the Salvation Army Shelter for Women and Children.

While affluent families in the city’s downtown often choose magnet and private schools, School 14 has long served many homeless students, at least one time having the largest proportion in the city.

Last year, the school enrolled 456 elementary school students, and it served more children living in shelters — 14 students — than any other school in the district. (The school is expanding to 8th grade.) Federal law requires public schools to continue busing students to their old school if they become homeless, and nearly every school in the district educates some homeless children. There were several campuses with higher overall rates of homelessness, which includes students who were forced to move in with friends or relatives or live in hotels.

But while the challenges at School 14 are not unique, advocates and families say it has been shaped by its unusually transient population, and it has become a hub to connect local nonprofits with families.

When Ebony Turner, who has a 4th grader at the school, was laid off, she would often stop by School 14 to use the computers to look for work, and it was a staffer at the school who helped her find a job as a teaching assistant. “They have helped me tremendously,” said Turner, adding that staff at the school always advocate for what’s best for students.

With the district’s new plan for the school, it could be a radically different place next fall. The board voted last week for the campus to be converted to an innovation school managed by Urban Act, a new charter school founded by Nigena Livingston.

As an innovation school, School 14 will still be considered part of the district. But the school will be operated by Livingston without daily oversight from the district. In the four years since the state created innovation schools, Indianapolis Public Schools has restarted four struggling schools with innovation partners. Most of those schools have seen improvements in test scores.

Livingston, who has been an educator for over 15 years, moved to Indianapolis in 2016 after she won a fellowship from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has supported many of the innovation schools in the district. She plans to use “place-based learning”  at School 14, a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

When students are struggling, parents, educators, and community groups need to come together to support them, said Livingston.

“These are all of our students and we are all responsible for student outcomes,” said Livingston. “We are all working together.”

Since Livingston was chosen as a potential operator for School 14, she has won support from many of the community partners and parents at the school. Taylor of the Boner Centers said that he believed her vision for the school and her focus on place-based learning could help stitch the school into the community.

But the plan to restart the school has also inspired resistance.

School board member Elizabeth Gore, who voted against the proposal last week, said the district could have improved the school by giving it more support.

“Using outside partners is one way, but not the only answer when we have a good core of principals and staff to work on our own to restore the academic quality,” she said.

Several parents at School 14 — some supporting the restart and some opposing it — seemed to share many of the same concerns about the plan. They said the school would benefit from newer technology, and they would be happy to see a new curriculum. But they also said they would like some current teachers to remain.

When the school restarts, however, many of the teachers will likely leave. Teachers at innovation are employed by the operator rather than the district. In order for current teachers from School 14 to remain at the school, they will need to apply for positions with URBAN ACT Academy. If Livingston hires them, they will be giving up their contracts with the district, and the protections of their union membership.

Because the staff and parents learned in the fall that School 14 would likely be restarted, educators there have already been in limbo for months.

“There has to be a better way,” said Judith Fleurimond, a parent of two children at the school and a member of Stand. “Teachers are important. A teacher who has worked at a school for that many years shouldn’t have to just get up and pack and leave.”