Future of Schools

Next crop of Indianapolis charter schools could have familiar faces, few newcomers

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students from Paramount School of Excellence's robotics team show off their skills at the Indiana Afterschool Network's Summit on Out of School Learning at the JW Marriott hotel in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis’ next wave of charter schools could come largely from longtime educators and established networks — a sign that the city’s charter sector might be maturing.

Four schools have indicated to the Indianapolis mayor’s office that they’re interested in applying for charters. Three would replicate existing school models: Paramount School of Excellence, Herron High School, and Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The fourth potential new school, a K-8 school on the southeast-side, comes from Mind Trust fellow Aleicha Ostler, the former principal of Indianapolis Public Schools’ SUPER School 19.

The interested schools bring backgrounds that include track records of success, years of education experience, access to deep resources, and support from politically influential players.

The familiar faces in this crop of charter school applicants suggest that Indiana’s 16-year-old charter scene is evolving, with more proven schools replicating across the city than in the past, when most schools were still new and untested.

The mayor’s office, which authorizes most of the city’s charter schools, appears to be looking increasingly to strong leaders with proven successes and intentionally targeted efforts — many of them already singled out and supported by the Mind Trust — in today’s competitive charter market.  

To be sure, many new ideas are still coming to Indianapolis. This spring, the state charter school board is also considering an application for an arts and vocational charter school from a longtime Indianapolis police detective seeking to help children affected by crime and poverty.

The potential new charter schools would open in fall 2019 at the earliest.

For those going through the mayor’s office, the schools would still have to submit full applications for approval, a process that started last month with their letters of intent and continues through June with interviews and public hearings.

Replicating Herron and Purdue Polytechnic would expand public high school offerings following IPS’ move to close and consolidate district high schools next year. Their existing schools fall under the district’s umbrella as innovation schools, but it’s too early to know whether any potential new schools could follow suit.

Purdue Polytechnic, run in partnership with Purdue University, has been planning to open a network of schools, and head of school Scott Bess said this is the first step to start expansion plans. He hopes to open a second school on the north side of the county, to eventually enroll up to 600 students.

Purdue Polytechnic opened its first school last fall with 150 freshman students, with more demand than it was able to accommodate, Bess said. The high school uses a new project-based curriculum focused on science and math skills, with a goal of serving low-income students and students of color.

The first high school plans to move into the former P.R. Mallory factory on the eastside if costly renovations can be worked out. Paramount could propose to open a middle school at the same location as a feeder to the first Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The project-based, hands-on philosophies of both Paramount and Purdue Polytechnic would make it “a natural fit,” Bess said.

“We felt there was strong synergy between their approach to STEM and our approach to STEM, so we thought the two models would serve each other well,” said Tommy Reddicks, Paramount’s executive director.

The existing eastside elementary Paramount School of Excellence uses a data-driven approach and is known for its urban farm. Paramount is working on opening a second school this fall, Reddicks said, also on the eastside.

The highly sought-after Herron High School, one of the city’s older charter schools, might seek to open its third high school focused on liberal arts with a classical education approach. Its second school, Riverside High School, opened last fall with 140 freshmen students and plans to move to the former Heslar Naval Armory on the banks of the White River.

Herron did not list a potential location for a third high school, which could open in 2020 and eventually enroll up to 500 students, according to the letter of intent submitted to the city. Herron officials did not return messages seeking comment.

The Mind Trust, a local charter school incubator and education nonprofit, has previously provided support to school leaders in all three of the networks seeking to replicate, in addition to Ostler as a current fellow.

The K-8 school that Ostler is interested in starting would open in the southeast-side neighborhood of Twin Aire. She wants to build off her experience at the nearby SUPER School 19, a magnet school incorporating physical movement into education.

She is using her two-year fellowship to develop a pitch for a school that would focus on design thinking, personalized learning, and postsecondary planning. Her concept comes from a concern that schools prepare students for tests, not careers in the real world.

“I don’t think as schools we’re really assisting with that problem,” Ostler said.

She noticed many students on the southeast-side were the first in their family to graduate from high school or go to college. For postsecondary planning, Invent Learning Hub will show students career options throughout the city, connect their passions and skills with careers, talk about how families can support students’ pathways, and follow up with students after they graduate from the K-8 school.

She also wants to dedicate a block of each day to design thinking, just like math and reading.

The Indiana Charter School Board is also considering a proposal from the HIM by HER Foundation, started by Indianapolis homicide detective Harry C. Dunn III. The nonprofit’s name stands for Helping Improve Mankind by Healing Every Race, and it began as an effort to address the vocational, educational, and mentoring needs that Dunn saw young black men facing in particular.

The HIM By HER Collegiate School for the Arts would be run by Wanda Riesz, a former school principal and Indianapolis Public Schools administrator, according to the school’s application. It would look to fill the void left by the closure of the Broad Ripple High School’s performing arts magnet program at the end of this year. It also would look to provide alternative education to fit the individual needs of at-risk students such as those who might be pregnant, expelled from other schools, or going through juvenile court.

The school would leverage community partnerships and teach Spanish to all students.

Riesz did not immediately return a message seeking comment. The school will undergo interviews and public hearings before the board decides in May whether to approve it.

Election Guide

Meet the Newark power players looking to steer this year’s school-board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Ras Baraka is one of three powerful forces backing a slate of candidates considered the leading contenders in this year's school-board race.

One evening last week, excitement surged through the Willing Heart Community Care Center, a charity housed inside a Baptist church near downtown Newark.

Dozens of residents had crowded into the pews for a chance to listen to some of the 13 candidates vying for three open seats on the city’s school board. They understood the high stakes of next month’s election: Newly empowered after two decades under state control, the nine-member board will be responsible for managing the district’s nearly $1 billion budget and choosing a new superintendent.

This group of board members “will be the first set under the newly constituted Board of Education,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of Newark’s NAACP, which hosted the event, as the crowd rumbled with applause. A few moments later, she underscored her point: “This becomes a very, very important election.”

But for all of the election’s significance, it’s hardly expected to be a model of democracy.

Held in April apart from other elections, voter turnout — like school board races across the country — has historically been low. Last year, about 7,500 people cast ballots, or just over 5 percent of registered voters.

And three of the candidates are running on a slate backed by a powerful alliance of Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and the city’s growing charter-school sector. Candidates on that slate — previously dubbed “Newark Unity,” and now called “Moving Newark Schools Forward”  have dominated each election since the alliance formed in 2016.

Charles Love, a former parent organizer who ran in the previous two board elections, said the 10 candidates not on that slate face an uphill climb. Last year, Love had committed volunteers and the backing of a city councilwoman. But he said it was not enough to compete with the political machine behind the Unity slate, which helps its candidates fundraise, knock on doors, produce campaign materials, and prep for debates.

“In a sense, the Unity slate negates the independent candidate — it creates almost zero possibility of you winning,” Love said. “If you try to throw arrows at a tank, you’re going to lose.”

Below is a guide to the power centers behind the slate whose candidates are considered the leading contenders in this year’s election, which takes place April 17. (The deadline to register to vote is March 27.)

A muscular charter sector seeking to mobilize parents

As Newark’s charter-school sector has rapidly expanded to serve about a third of city students, its political ambitions have grown with it. That was made clear by its recent search for the ideal school-board candidate.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton (left) is a kindergarten teacher chosen to represent the charter-school sector in the race.

A coalition of charter-school advocates convened by the Newark Charter School Fund first identified nearly 20 potential candidates last summer. The contenders then participated in individual and group interviews, met current board members, and underwent trainings on how to run for public office. One session was conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter advocacy group led by Shavar Jeffries, a former Newark school-board member and mayoral candidate.

Finally, the coalition settled on Asia Norton, a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school.

“We think she is smart, talented, and has the right experience, temperament, and leadership to represent all of the 55,000 kids in Newark,” said Michele Mason, the Newark Charter School Fund’s executive director.

The charter sector began to ramp up its political involvement after Baraka’s election in 2014. During the campaign, he had crusaded against former Superintendent Cami Anderson — whose policies included opening more charter schools — and attacked Jeffries, who enjoyed strong backing by pro-charter forces.

The following year, supporters of the city’s largest charter-school operators, KIPP and North Star Academy, funded a new advocacy group called the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, or PC2E. The idea was to organize the thousands of Newark parents with children in charters into a potent voting bloc that could push back against critics who wanted to halt the sector’s expansion.

In 2016, PC2E joined the “Newark Unity” slate with Ramos and Baraka – a surprise given that Baraka had sharply criticized Newark’s charters for sapping resources from the district’s traditional public schools. PC2E’s political arm spent heavily on the board races — nearly $208,000 in 2016 and over $174,000 in 2017, according to campaign filings — and its candidates easily won each year. (PC2E has been less active since its executive director resigned in November.)

Now, charter advocates are focused on getting Norton elected. For her part, Norton is emphasizing her local roots — she grew up in the South Ward, and her mother is a Newark public-school teacher — over her charter credentials. At Thursday’s candidate forum, she touted her experience teaching for six years in Newark schools but did not mention that they were charters.

“I don’t view myself as a charter teacher,” Norton told Chalkbeat in an interview before the forum. “I’m a Newark teacher.” She said parents should be able to choose the best schools for their children – whether public, private, or charter.

“That’s what I think makes Newark so rich,” she said, “all the different educational programs that are provided for our children.”

A ‘pragmatic’ mayor running for re-election

Baraka has long been a force in the city’s school-board elections.

The “Children First” slate that he backed as a city councilman and then as mayor won seats in five consecutive elections, according to the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. In many of those races, his candidates battled those on the “For Our Kids” slate, aligned with the powerful North Ward.

So when he joined the Unity slate in 2016, many saw it as a shrewd political move. The alliance allowed him to choose a candidate who stood a strong chance of winning without having to take on the North Ward machine or the well-financed charter sector, whose schools serve a growing number of city residents.

“Mayor Baraka is very astute, he’s very pragmatic,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. When it came to the board elections, she explained, his options were to “be inclusive or wage a war of finances, organizing, and mobilization.”

This year, his chosen candidate is Dawn Hayes, a City Hall staffer and public-school parent.

According to her campaign biography, she is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and “the first Muslim woman working as a technician for Direct TV.” She is also a member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher organization.

Even as Baraka pushes for his slate to win in April, he is looking ahead to May 8, when he is up for reelection. While he is heavily favored in that race, a school-board victory ahead of time would help lend an air of inevitability to the outcome.

“Is it a barometer for the mayoral election?” said Baskerville-Richardson. “I guess so.”

A ward known for its political prowess

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Yambeli Gomez is a city councilman’s aide and former labor organizer chosen for the slate by the North Ward.

When it comes to racking up votes, the North Ward is a well-oiled machine.

It was long under the sway of Steve Adubato Sr., a political powerbroker who founded the North Ward Center in 1970 and one of New Jersey’s first charter schools, Robert Treat Academy, in 1997. Now Councilman Ramos, who ran for mayor in 2014 before dropping out and endorsing Jeffries, is one of the main forces behind the ward’s political operation.

In last year’s school-board election, slate candidates received far more votes in the North Ward than they did anywhere else — including Baraka’s base in the South Ward.

This year, Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, is chairing the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate. Ramos himself is bringing its members along as he canvases at churches and community events ahead of his own re-election bid in May.

“We really take the election seriously,” Ramos said about the board race. “We take it as an informal test of our operation.”

The ward’s candidate is Yambeli Gomez, an aide to Councilman At-Large Eddie Osborne.

The daughter of immigrants, Gomez previously was an organizer for campaigns to raise the wages of fast-food workers and expand pre-kindergarten in New York City. Her mother is an organizer for the powerful 32BJ SEIU union.

Introducing herself at last week’s forum, Gomez switched between English and Spanish — a nod to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Consistent with her slate, she sounded a theme of unity.

“I’m running for school board because I was one of those kids who didn’t feel included,” she said. “I want to be able to help and be inclusive.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.