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.

School Choice

With another Butler lab school in the works, the north side is unofficially a magnet magnet

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Schools may open a new magnet school on the north side, a move that would further cluster sought-after programs in one of the district’s most affluent areas.

The school board heard a proposal Tuesday to convert School 55, also called Eliza Blaker, to the second lab school in collaboration with Butler University. If the board approves the plan, current students would have the choice to remain at the school, but new children would be admitted by lottery.

It would mean that in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor — which encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods as well as some lower income neighborhoods — every elementary school would be a magnet.

The district is making progress in a campaign to increase diversity in the most sought-after programs. But the decision to place another magnet school on the north side is likely to draw criticism from parents who would like to see them in other areas.

These schools are “concentrated,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who represents the area around School 55. “We are 80 square miles, and yet, those programs are all isolated in a less than 10 square mile area of our district.”

“We’ve got a big district out there, and there are areas that I think could really benefit from some of these programs,” she added.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary campuses

If the IPS administration converts School 55 to magnet school, it will increase the cluster of magnet programs on north side of the district. Most elementary schools on the east, south and west sides of the district are traditional neighborhood schools.


The district currently operates School 60, which is about 3 miles south of School 55, as a lab school in collaboration with Butler. The school is open to students from across the district, but families who live nearby and children with parents who work at Butler have an advantage in the magnet lottery. As a lab school, it’s also a place where Butler education students gain on-the-ground experience through classes and as teaching assistants.

That’s one reason why the proposal calls for locating the second magnet campus on the north side: There are other locations that might be a good fit, but students from Butler need to be able to get to and from the campus for classes, said school leader Ron Smith. “A Butler lab school does need to be near enough … to make it a viable option for coursework.”

The school uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Like Montessori schools, Reggio emphasizes hands on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. School 60 has some multigrade classrooms and some that are single grades as part of the experimental approach of a lab program, which aims to test out educational ideas. It is one of the most popular schools in the district and last year, 266 applicants were placed on the waitlist.

When the Butler lab program began at School 60 about five years ago, most of the prior students were forced to leave, and the school restarted by building up from the early grades.

The new magnet dramatically altered the makeup of the school. Before the lab program began, School 60 educated a heavily black, low-income population. Nearly 92 percent of students were black, and more than 85 percent were poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. Since becoming a magnet, the school’s enrollment has transformed: Last year, 62 percent of students were white and 28 percent were eligible for subsidized meals.

But Smith said the picture is beginning to look different this year. With the help of new district admissions policies aimed at diversifying magnet schools and outreach from current parents, who have hosted events and gone door-to-door to recruit families, Smith said, the school has enrolled substantially more children of color.

If the board approves the proposal, School 55 would likely see a less dramatic shift in demographics because all of the current students would be able to remain. The campus is only about half full, so it could absorb some new students without displacing any of the current children.

The new campus could help diversify the program, said Smith: “It’s our intention that every family currently at School 55 would choose to remain as a part of the lab school program.”

testing talk

‘Virtually meaningless’ or ‘steady progress’? New York City reacts to this year’s state test scores

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

English and math exam pass rates inched up in New York City this year compared to last year — more than they did in the state as a whole, city officials announced Tuesday.

The annual release of test scores created a wave of reactions from education stakeholders across the state. Charter school advocates claimed victory, the state teachers union called them “meaningless” and Mayor Bill de Blasio said they represent the “painstaking work” of schools across New York City.

Here is a sample of reactions:

The mayor touted his own education agenda.

“These improvements over the past four years represent painstaking work – student by student, classroom by classroom, and school by school. It’s steady progress towards a stronger and fairer system for all. We are focused on building on these gains and others – such as the highest-ever high school graduation rate – to deliver equity and excellence for every public school student across the city, no matter their zip code.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio

Charter advocates said it shows the strength of their approach.

“New York City charter public schools are continuing to show us poverty is not destiny in the greatest city in the world. Charter public schools offer the promise of closing the achievement gap and today’s results show they are delivering on that promise. It’s been almost 20 years since New York passed its charter law and these public schools are now out of the experimentation phase: not only should their lessons have more reach, but so should they.” — StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis

Success Academy highlighted its push for more school space.

“These results should inspire the de Blasio administration to immediately support Success Academy and other high-performing charters to serve more students in public space.” — Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy founder and CEO

The state’s teachers union called the test scores “virtually meaningless.”

“They don’t count for students or teachers — and they shouldn’t count. They are derived from a broken testing system; are rooted in standards that are no longer being taught; and — for now — are the foundation of a totally discredited teacher evaluation system. The test-and-punish era damaged the trust and confidence of parents in our public education system, as evidenced by the continuing strength of the opt-out movement, and we believe dramatic changes are needed to win them back.” — NYSUT President Andy Pallotta

The city’s teachers union said they represented “progress.”

“Thanks to the efforts of teachers and other staff members across the city, our students are making solid, sustainable progress and the nation’s largest school system is moving in the right direction.” — UFT President Michael Mulgrew

Other groups took the chance to criticize opt-out.

“The results show the right thing to do is to keep moving forward, not tear down high standards and end annual assessments like opponents call for. The continued rise in proficiency scores is a clear sign that high standards are preparing students for future challenges, and parents are increasingly rejecting misguided calls to ‘opt out’ of the state’s annual check-ups. Both of these are good trends for every student in New York, no matter where they are growing up.” — High Achievement New York Executive Director Stephen Sigmund

And some pushed for more dramatic change.

“While we are pleased to see the test scores move in the right direction for New York City students overall, we are concerned about the persistent gaps that exist for students with disabilities and English language learners. Teaching students to read is one of the most fundamental tasks of schools.  With only 5.6% of English language learners and 10.7% of students with disabilities scoring proficiently in reading, the city must do more to support these students and ensure that they receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction that targets their individual needs.”— Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet