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.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

Yeshiva probe

As Yeshiva probe heats up, state issues guidance for reviewing nonpublic schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
A school bus sits outside an all girls Jewish school in Williamsburg.

The state education department released long-awaited guidance Tuesday on the process that local authorities must follow to determine whether nonpublic and religious schools, including yeshivas, are meeting standards equivalent to those governing New York’s public schools.

The guidance arrives in New York City on the heels of a long-running probe into whether city yeshivas are providing an adequate secular education. The state direction also comes after the recent firing of former city investigator Mark Peters, whose office was scrutinizing City Hall’s involvement in the yeshiva investigation.

Will Mantell, spokesman for the city education department, said its officials will “work aggressively to implement” the state’s instructions.

Under the guidelines, local school districts must perform a review of each religious and independent school within their boundaries. But Tuesday’s guidance also folds in an amendment lawmakers passed this spring that largely applies to yeshivas: after an initial review by the local school district, the state education commissioner makes the final determination over schools that are nonprofit corporations, have a bilingual program, and operate during a certain time frame.

The new guidance comes after a three-year city Department of Education probe that found troubling lapses in secular education at the city’s yeshivas and asked for direction from the state, which recently granted oversight of the schools to the state education commissioner. Controversy heated up again last week as city education officials admitted they still haven’t visited many of the schools, whose students often come from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is seen as a powerful voting bloc.

And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fired Peters, who quickly warned that de Blasio’s decision could reflect an effort to quash his office’s yeshiva probe. At a press conference on Monday, de Blasio denied that City Hall tried to interfere in any of Peters’ investigations.

The guidance, which stresses that oversight of nonpublic schools be “a collaborative effort,” sets out the procedure the city should follow and provides for a new round of training for investigators and a timeline of three years, up to December 2021, that districts can have to complete their reviews. Thereafter, districts will revisit the reviews every five years and maintain an open dialogue with nonpublic school leaders.

A preliminary city probe found that in many yeshivas instruction in English and math lasted only 90 minutes, didn’t take place every day, and was sometimes voluntary. Lessons in math didn’t go beyond basic division and fractions, science instruction was almost nonexistent, and teaching often occurred in languages other than English.

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates For Fair Education, or YAFFED, an advocacy group that has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, thinks this timeline could stymie needed change. He notes that the city’s earlier review “may now have to be revisited in light of the new guidelines, dragging this investigation on for even longer while students in ultra-Orthodox schools continue to be deprived of a substantially equivalent education,” he said.We don’t believe that the yeshivas that have been stonewalling should be rewarded with even more time.”

In addition to core coursework, schools must abide by other requirements, including conducting “fire and emergency drills” and meeting “immunization requirements for their grades.” (A few Orthodox Jewish communities, which sometimes have low vaccination rates, have recently suffered outbreaks of measles in New York and New Jersey.)

New York City officials have reviewed many yeshivas already, and Elia said the city “should take the guidance that we have provided” and apply it to what they’ve found.

“The State has given the DOE clear authority to visit and evaluate all non-public schools, and we immediately requested the earliest possible staff training on the new guidance and will begin visits, evaluations, and recommendations and findings of substantial equivalency as soon as we’ve completed the training,” Mantell said.

The department will give priority to the “the six schools that have denied us access” and move “forward with the 24 schools that are part of our inquiry, which may include additional visits or gathering additional documents,” he said.

The state’s actions come as the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in grades K-12 is growing rapidly, reaching a record 110,000, nearly rivaling the size of the city’s charter sector, which serves roughly 114,000 students. (Approximately 148,000 students attend parochial or independent day schools in the city.)

When asked about certain yeshivas denying the city access, Elia said, “If someone does not allow anyone in from the local school district to review and look at what’s happening there, there obviously would be consequences.”

The first remedy would be compelling schools to comply. But continued non-compliance could mean a loss of funding for certain services, like textbook and transportation, which Elia said is a rare occurrence. Parents at the schools would be notified, usually within six weeks to two months, that their children must be transferred to an appropriate school. If those students stay at the school past the established deadline, they could be marked as truant.

Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.