Future of Schools

Indianapolis innovation schools must follow a new policy after one lost its nonprofit status

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school that was started with funding from the Mind Trust.

As principals in Indianapolis Public Schools take on more responsibility, they are tasked with new administrative duties — and sometimes things may fall through the cracks.

The issue was crystallized last month at a school board meeting, when it was revealed that Global Preparatory Academy at School 44 lost its tax exempt status because leaders had failed to file paperwork to maintain it.

As one of eight Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that have converted to innovation status over the past three years, Global Prep is a new kind of school. It is under the umbrella of the district, but the school also has a charter, and its leader has administrative responsibilities that would not typically fall to a district principal.

Maintaining the school’s 501(c)(3) status is one of those new responsibilities, said founder and principal Mariama Carson, who previously led a neighborhood school in Pike Township for seven years. Under Indiana law, only nonprofit organizations may receive charters.

“The fact that we missed the filing, yes, that’s a big deal,” Carson said. But, she added, “it was totally unrelated to the operational runnings of the school, and I think that’s what parents care most about.”

The consequences of the mistake are relatively negligible, Carson said. The school’s nonprofit status was revoked last May, and Carson learned about it during the school’s annual audit. The school reapplied for tax-exempt status in February, she said, and if the request is approved by the Internal Revenue Service, the decision will be retroactive. The school did have to pay several thousand dollars for an accountant to prepare the new application, she said.

The revelation that Global Prep had failed to maintain tax-exempt status was especially notable because it often wins praise from advocates for innovation schools. It is led by an experienced principal, saw a jump in test scores during its first year, and has growing enrollment.

The issue came to light when MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, a community advocate and critic of innovations schools, shared the audit with the Indianapolis Public Schools board in February.

“I want to know why no due diligence is being done,” she said to the board. She added that the school is expected to be overseen by the district and the Office of Mayor Joe Hogsett, which granted its charter. The founder also got funding and support from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has played a central role in the creation of innovation schools.

“How can no one find this?” she asked.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders did not learn about the problem until February because the school had not notified them previously. That violates the school’s contract with the district, which requires the school to give notice if it loses tax exempt status, and the district sent the school a written reprimand.

Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for Indianapolis Public Schools, said that the district also changed its process in response to the issue. Now, schools are required to submit proof of nonprofit status every year. Previously the district would only get that information when it received the annual audit.

“It certainly has made us look back at our reporting requirements from our partner schools, making sure that we have dotted all I’s and crossed all T’s, and that we have all the information that we need to have,” Johnson said.

The flexibility afforded to innovation schools comes along with new responsibility for operational issues such as human resources, contracts with vendors, and school technology. This year, Global Prep hired a director of operations to take on some of those duties.

Johnson said that all district principals need to think about similar administrative and operational issues, “but certainly the scope and the spectrum at which an innovation principal needs to be thinking about them is broader.”

Carson sees the issue as a one-off problem. The school became a nonprofit as part of the charter application process before it opened its doors, and she did not realize regular forms were necessary to maintain nonprofit status, said Carson. Now, she has a team of people she relies on to deal with financial and administrative issues, but it was not on their radar because she handled the initial application, she added.

“As a neighborhood principal, I didn’t have those challenges,” Carson said. “But now there are systems that have to be in place for anybody that’s running an innovation school, different than just running a school for the district.”

Update:  March 31, 2018: This story has been updated to clarify MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger’s quote.


A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”