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.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.