Struggling schools

Most Indianapolis charter schools scored below the Indianapolis Public Schools average on ISTEP

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Then-Mayor Greg Ballard helps cut the ribbon for the opening of Vision Academy in 2014. Like many new charter schools, it had low test scores in its first year.

Many Indiana schools saw rock-bottom passing rates on last year’s tougher ISTEP exam but in a city where public and charter schools compete for students, it’s worth noting that a majority of charter schools in the city had passing rates below the district’s average.

Just 29.1 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students passed the 2015 ISTEP. That’s far below the statewide average of 52.5 percent but many charters posted even lower scores. Three of the charter schools that had the lowest scores in the city have since closed.

Chalkbeat in recent weeks highlighted the top 10 IPS schools that beat odds on the 2015 exam, the 10 IPS schools that ranked lowest for percent passing ISTEP and the top 10 charter schools in the city when it came to passing the test. In the coming weeks, stories on the top and bottom ranked township and small city schools in Indianapolis will follow.

Here’s a look at the lowest-ranking charters:

Indiana Math & Science Academy

The first of what is now three ISMA campuses in Indianapolis, the K-8 school located just south of downtown saw just 20 percent of its students pass ISTEP in 2015. That’s down about 21 percentage points from the prior year — a steeper drop than the average Indiana school where passing rates fell by 19 percentage points.

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.

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

The 530-student school, which is sponsored by the mayor’s office, has struggled over the past two years after five straight years of improving test scores. The test is given to kids in grades 3-8.

The ISMA schools are managed by Illinois-based charter school company Concept Schools, which in recent years has been probed by the FBI but no action has yet been taken against the company. Concept is connected to the Turkish Gulen movement in the United States.

About 80 percent of the school’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four must earn less than $44,863.

About 60 percent of the school’s students are black, 31 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are white.

By comparison, at the average IPS school, 71 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance.

About 22 percent of students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 11 percent were in special education.

Vision Academy

The Vision Academy, a K-7 school on the Northwest edge of downtown, is the sister school to Avondale Meadows Academy.

Vision Academy is a mayor-sponsored charter school affiliated with the Challenge Foundation.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Vision Academy is a mayor-sponsored charter school affiliated with the Challenge Foundation.

The school, which opened in 2014, reported ISTEP scores for the first time in 2015 but just 20 percent of its students passed the test.

The 372-student school, sponsored by the mayor’s office, is locally managed.

About 91 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 16 percent of students were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 2 percent were English language learners.

Andrew J. Brown Academy

The Andrew J. Brown Academy on the city’s East side, saw a dramatic 30 percentage point drop in its ISTEP passing rate last year. Just 19 percent of the school’s students passed the 2015 test.

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.

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

The K to 8 school, which serves 641 students, is managed by the Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter school companies in the country, and is sponsored by the mayor’s office.

About 97 percent of the school’s students come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is 57 percent black, 37 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white.

About 28 percent of the school’s students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 10 percent were in special education.

Indiana Math & Science Academy South

IMSA’s south campus, which serves 282 students in grades K to 8, is the newest of three Indiana Math and Science Academies in Indianapolis.

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

About 16 percent of students who took the exam passed ISTEP last year. That’s down 25 percentage points from 2014.

Like its sister schools, ISMA south is run by Illinois-based Concept schools and sponsored by the mayor’s office.

The south campus serves almost entirely students from families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at 95 percent.

About 57 percent of the school’s students are black, 24 percent are white and 9 percent are Hispanic.

Very few of the school’s students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available, at less than 1 percent. About 15 percent were in special education.

Andrew Academy (now closed)

After a big drop in test scores in 2014, the school made the decision to surrender its charter after conversations with then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. School officials said the Andrew Academy had failed to achieve its goals, prompting the decision to close.

In its final year, Andrew Academy saw just 13.6 percent of its students pass ISTEP. That was down 40 percentage points from 2014.

Imagine Life Science Academy West

Imagine Life Science Academy West continues to be one of the lowest scoring charter schools in the city.

Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis is a charter school on the city's West side.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis is a charter school on the city’s West side.

Run by the Virginia-based for-profit company Imagine Schools, Life Science Academy West saw just 13 percent of students pass ISTEP last year. That was down 28 percentage points from the prior year.

Three other Imagine schools have closed down in Indiana. Imagine West’s charter was not renewed by Ball State University in 2013, but it was granted a new charter by Trine University, which allowed the school to continue operating.

Imagine West’s enrollment is down by more than 100 students to 479 in grades K-8 this year. It is located on the city’s Northwest side, right next to IPS School 79, which ranks among the district’s top 10 with 48 percent passing ISTEP.

About 93 percent of Imagine West’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch The school is 63 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.

A large number of students were English-language learners at about 24 percent in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available, and 14 percent were in special education.

Fall Creek Academy and University Heights Preparatory Academy (both now closed)

These sister schools struggled with low test scores dating back to when University Heights was known as Fountain Square Academy.

Challenge Foundation rescued the two schools after then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s office declined to renew their charters for low test scores and other problems. But the new arrangement did not produce significantly better results.

The new sponsor, Ball State University, made the decision last year to close the two schools, which shut down last summer. In their final tries at ISTEP, just 12.3 percent of Fall Creek students passed the test, while the passing rate at University Heights was 11.1 percent.

Damar Charter Academy

Damar Charter Academy’s unique design means passing ISTEP is an even greater challenge. The school enrolls almost entirely 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 serves students who need special education services.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Damar Charter Academy serves students who need special education services.

The idea when the school was founded was to help children who receive services from Damar with learning. It is locally managed and sponsored by the mayor’s office. Most of the school’s 163 students in grades K-12 take an alternative exam tailored to children with disabilities, leaving very few to take ISTEP.

But those that do take ISTEP have struggled to pass.

In 2015, 3.6 percent of the 27 Damar students who took ISTEP passed.

Located on the city’s Southwest side, about 81 percent of the school’s students come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is about 66 percent white, 26 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic. Less than 1 percent were English-language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available. More than 96 percent were in special education.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence

The first year of ISTEP scores didn’t go so well for the tiny Indianapolis Academy of Excellence.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is located just North of downtown in the former Indianapolis Project School building.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is located just North of downtown in the former Indianapolis Project School building.

The new charter school has only 85 students in grades K-4 and just 15 were old enough to take ISTEP last year. None of them passed.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is affiliated with the Challenge Foundation and sponsored by the Indiana State Charter School Board. The school is located just east of downtown.

The school has a very high percentage of students in poverty. About 99 percent of students are from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 89 percent of the school’s students are black, 6 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are white.

About 10 percent of students were in special education and 4 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

Five other charter schools fell below the IPS district average, including:

  • Carpe Diem – Meridian: In 2014, the school ranked among the top 10 charter schools. But with 27.7 percent passing in 2015, the school slipped below the IPS average and fell 35 percentage points from the prior year.
  • Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School: The school’s passing rate fell 22 percentage points from 2014 to 27.4 percent, but that slide was not as steep as many other charter schools. That helped lift Indianapolis Lighthouse above the bottom 10, where it ranked last year.
  • Indiana Math & Science Academy North: Like Carpe Diem, ISMA North was ranked among the top 10 charter schools in 2014. But in 2015, its passing rate fell 34 percentage points to 27.4 percent, coming in below the IPS average this time.
  • Enlace Academy: The school’s 25 percent passing rate put it below the IPS average, but there was good news. While the average school in Indiana saw its passing rate drop by 19 percentage points on the harder 2015 exam, Enlace’s passing rate dropped just 3.6 percentage points, one of the smallest declines in the state.
  • Padua Academy (now closed): Just 22.4 percent of students passed ISTEP in the last year for this school.
  • KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory Academy: The roller coaster ride continues for KIPP when it comes to its ISTEP passing rate. About 21 percent passed in 2015. That was below the IPS average but kept the school off the bottom 10 list, which it was on last year. Its passing rate dropped 17 percentage points from last year, a drop that was better than the average Indiana school, which fell by 19 points.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.