Future of Schools

Half of Indianapolis charter schools scored lower than IPS on ISTEP in 2014

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Lead Kindergarten teacher Liz Amadio, right, works with students at Enlace Academy.

Charter schools were designed to be a better alternative to low-scoring traditional public schools, especially in cities like Indianapolis where many children must overcome barriers to learning.

But of the 18 charter schools operating this year in the city that took ISTEP last year, about half fell below the Indianapolis Public Schools districtwide average of 51.6 percent passing.

Those nine charter schools, where only about half the students, or fewer, passed ISTEP in 2014, have one thing in common: they serve more poor children than the average IPS school. Some of them are focused on students with special needs that can make it harder to earn a passing score on the state test, such as large numbers of children who are learning English as a new language or in special education.

But several of charter schools below the district average have what sometimes can be considered an advantage: they have been around for several years and are connected to national networks of schools.

Chalkbeat is publishing short profiles of the top-scoring and lowest-scoring Marion County schools on ISTEP for three types of schools — Indianapolis Public Schools, township schools and charter schools. Check out our past stories on the top-rated IPS schools, lowest-scoring IPS schools and the top-scoring charter schools.

(ISTEP scores and grades for the 2014-15 school year are not expected to be released until late this year or early next year.)

While seven of the top nine Indianapolis charter schools for ISTEP scores are homegrown charter schools, the story is different for the nine schools that rank below the IPS average. For those schools, seven of nine are part of national networks. Just two are locally run charter schools.

Charter schools are free public schools run independently from school districts. Each has a local governing board that decides who will manage the school. Those boards report to a sponsor, also sometimes called an authorizer. In Indiana, the legislature has given the state charter board, universities, school districts and the Indianapolis mayor the authority to be sponsors. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office sponsors most of the city’s charter schools.

Sponsors have the authority to decide when charter schools can open, monitor their progress toward and hold them accountable for their performance, which can include shutting them down.

Many charter schools focus on students who come to school with barriers to learning. For example, several have large numbers of students that come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually. Some have large numbers of students in special education or who are learning English as a new language, two challenges that can make it harder for a school to earn a high passing rate.

Here’s a look at the lowest-scoring Indianapolis charter schools:

Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School

A K-12 school located on the city’s southeast side, Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School’s scores were on the rise for six years until the school absorbed students when its sister school, Monument Lighthouse, closed in 2013.

IndyLighthouseCharterMug
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
With more than 1,000 students, Indianapolis Lighthouse is one of the city’s biggest charter schools.

The school’s enrollment jumped by more than 300 students to 1,016 in grades K-12. Since the merger, test progress has slowed.

About half the school passed ISTEP in 2014, 49.7 percent, down for the second straight year from the 2012 high of 52.8 percent. As a result, the school was rated a D in 2014, down from a C the year before. As recently as 2011 it had been rated an A.

Even though the school’s ISTEP decline has been slight, the passing rate is low, failing to outdo the IPS average of 51.6 percent. Lighthouse has since opened a second school, Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East. The schools are among the few Indianapolis charter schools run by out-of-state companies. The Massachusetts-based Lighthouse Academies network has schools in eight states. The school is sponsored by the Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office.

About 85 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 72 percent are black, 15 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic. Roughly 3 percent are English-language learners and 12 percent are in special education.

Andrew J. Brown Academy

With a 49.6 percent passing rate on ISTEP in 2014, Andew J. Brown Academy has seen three straight years of falling scores, down from 64 percent passing in 2011.

Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country's biggest charter school companies.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country’s biggest charter school companies.

Located on the East side, the school’s grade has seen a corresponding decline. It was rated an F just four years after it was rated an A in 2011.

The school, serving 645 students in grades K-8, is run by Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter school management companies in the country. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Andrew J. Brown Academy services a high-poverty population, with 94 percent of its students coming from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is 61 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 2 percent white.

A large number of students at the school are learning English as a new language at nearly 28 percent. About 10 percent are in special education.

Indiana Math and Science Academy

The first of what is now a network of three Indiana Math and Science Academies has struggled the past two years, with 41.4 percent passing ISTEP in 2014, up slightly from the prior year.

The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.

But before 2013, the school had seen five straight years of test score gains.

Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, it earned a C in 2014, up from an F, but well below the A it earned in 2011. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Located southeast of downtown, the school serves about 560 students in grades K-12. About 79 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 64 percent of the school’s students are black, 27 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are white. A large number of the school’s students are learning English as a new language at 22 percent. About 11 percent are in special education.

KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory Academy

KIPP, a middle school for about 345 students in grades 5-8, has had its ups and downs when it comes to passing ISTEP. Lately, it’s been back down.

KIPP Indy moved into the former IPS School 110 building last year.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
KIPP Indy moved into the former IPS School 110 building last year.

About 47.9 percent passed ISTEP in 2014, down for the second straight year and dropping the school to a D. The school’s passing rate has been on a roller coaster. Between 2007 and 2009, scores dropped to a low of 31 percent passing. Then scores jumped for three straight years to 60 percent passing in 2012, earning an A, before falling again.

The school is affiliated with the well-regarded New York-based national KIPP charter school network. It moved last year to a new building, the former IPS School 110, and started a separate elementary school, KIPP Unite, in the same building. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

The school is very racially isolated — 95 percent of students are black. About 83 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 1 percent are English-language learners and about 19 percent are in special education.

Tindley Renaissance Academy

Now in its third year, Tindley Renaissance is the first elementary school that is part of the Tindley Accelerated Schools network.

Second graders work on literacy at Tindley Renaissance School last year.
PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Second graders work on literacy at Tindley Renaissance School last year.

But 2014 was the first year the school took ISTEP, and its passing rate was far below that of other schools that are part of the Tindley network at 44.3 percent.

The school, with about 500 students in grades K-4, is located in the same neighborhood as the other Tindley schools on the city’s northeast side. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Like other Tindley schools, Tindley Renaissance is very racially isolated, with 93 percent black students, and serves mostly low income enrollment in which about 70 percent of students comes from a family that is poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

The school has no English-language learners, and about 10 percent of its students are in special education.

Imagine Life Science Academy West

Imagine Life Science Academy West is the last remaining Indiana charter school run by Imagine Schools, a Virginia-based charter school management company.

Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis avoided being closed when it found a new charter sponsor.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis avoided being closed when it found a new charter sponsor.

A second Indianapolis school closed, and two in Fort Wayne converted to private schools after their charters were not renewed. The company just converted from a for-profit company to a nonprofit organization. The school is sponsored by Trine University.

Imagine West has been a long time low performing when it comes to passing ISTEP. Just 41.4 percent passed in 2014 and the school has never seen more than half its students pass. The school was rated an F, down from a D the prior year.

Imagine West is a large school serving about 590 students in grades K-8. It sits next door to IPS School 79, which has been rated an A for four straight years, on the city’s northwest side.

About 82 percent of its students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is 65 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.

A large number of students are English-language learners at about 24 percent, and 14 percent are in special education.

Indiana Math and Science Academy South

The newest sister school of Indiana Math and Science Academies network struggled in its first year, with 41.4 percent passing ISTEP in 2014.

Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.
PHOTO: Wikipedia
Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.

Also run by Illinois-based Concept Schools and sponsored by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, it earned a D on its first report card.

Located southeast of downtown, the school serves about 285 students in grades K-8. It serves a high-poverty population, with about 95 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 66 percent of the school’s students are black, 18 percent are white and 7 percent are Hispanic.

Very few of the school’s students are learning English as a new language at less than 1 percent. About 15 percent are in special education.

Enlace Academy

Located in an IPS-owned building on the city’s northwest side, Enlace serves a student body that includes a huge number of English-language learners at 57 percent of the school.

Enlace Academy is a charter school, where 55 percent of students are English language learners.
PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Enlace Academy is a charter school, where 55 percent of students are English language learners.

When it reported ISTEP scores for the first time in 2014, its passing rate was a very low 28.6 percent. Enlace has not yet earned a grade from the state. (For more on the school read this story from WFYI’s Eric Weddle that was part of a joint project with Chalkbeat.)

The school’s goal is to use technology and follow a blended learning approach similar to that of Carpe Diem. Students split their learning time between computer-led lessons and instruction from a teacher.

With about 202 students in grades K-5, the school serves a high-poverty population, with about 98 percent of students qualifying for free-or reduced price lunch.

The school is about 70 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black and 3 percent white. About 9 percent are in special education.

The locally run school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Damar Charter Academy

Damar Charter Academy is unique in that it enrolls almost exclusively students who need special education services. It is affiliated with Damar Services Inc., a local organization that helps children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges to live more independent lives.

Damar Charter Academy
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Damar Charter Academy serve nearly all students who need special education services.

The school was founded in 2011 to provide a school for children with those sorts of challenges. Very few of the students qualify to take ISTEP. Others take alternative tests crafted to better fit their needs.

Of those who do take ISTEP, few pass — just 10 percent in 2014. The school is sponsored by the Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office.

Damar is a small school of about 160 students in grades K-12 located on the city’s southwest side. About 81 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The school is about 69 percent white, 23 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. Less than 1 percent are English-language learners. More than 96 percent are in special education.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.