Future of Schools

A fast-growing charter network is planning a high school 0.8 miles from a closed IPS campus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

At the same time Indianapolis Public Schools is closing campuses, a charter network is starting a high school – just blocks from the just-shuttered John Marshall building on the far eastside.

Phalen Leadership Academy will add ninth grade to its middle-school campus, with the ultimate aim of creating a full high school, said founder Earl Phalen. The school is at 4352 Mitthoeffer Road, on the distant edge of Indianapolis Public Schools and less than a mile down the road from John Marshall, a campus the district first converted to a middle school then closed this spring.

The shift in the neighborhood is the latest chapter in decades of shrinkage of Indianapolis Public Schools, as families left for charter, suburban, and private schools. Now, the district is facing a paradox: Low enrollment led the school board to close half its high schools over two years in an effort to save money and improve the academic offerings at the remaining four centrally located campuses. But closing neighborhood high schools at the geographic fringes could expose Indianapolis Public Schools to more competition for families who no longer live near a district school.

Phalen’s announcement underscores its rapid growth in Indianapolis. Its expanded school, which currently has a charter for ninth grade, eventually hopes to enroll 400 students in grades nine through 12, Phalen said. That could increase enrollment in the non-profit charter network’s schools on the far eastside to about 1,500 students. That’s almost as many students as Speedway, a tiny district on the west side of the city.

Marshall long had a reputation for academic problems and violence, but the school enrolled nearly 800 middle and high school students in 2016-17. With Marshall closed, the district will allow all students to choose among four high school campuses.

The closest options will be Shortridge and Arsenal Technical high schools, which are both nearly 10 miles away.

“As nice of a school as Tech is, that’s a far ride for our kids, especially kids who want to play sports and do things that last after school,” said Nicole Fama, principal of the Phalen middle school. “They don’t have a neighborhood school really now.”

For Krystale Massey, the changing school landscape is clear. When she was growing up on the far eastside, everybody in the neighborhood went to the same school. Now, kids go to township and charter schools as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. Her own daughter goes to high school in Lawrence Township.

But Massey has three younger children in schools managed by Phalen, and she’s glad they may be able to stay with the network once they reach high school. Her children like the teachers, and they are doing well academically.

“They feel comfortable there,” Massey said. “You want your kids to at least feel comfortable at a school they are attending.”

Phalen got its start on the far eastside when it took over School 93 and School 103, two elementary schools. Those schools are not directly in competition with the district because they are in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network and are managed by Phalen through contracts with the district. But they gave the charter network a foothold in an area without many schools with good test results.

As Phalen elementary students matriculated, network leaders decided to launch a middle school, which opened this year with seventh- and eighth-graders.

“The question then becomes, what happens to our eighth graders?” Phalen asked. “There really is not a great option for high schoolers on the far eastside, so we decided to expand to the ninth grade.”

The middle school is only using about half of the building, and beginning this fall, Phalen will open a ninth-grade wing. To create a high school on the other half of the campus, said Phalen, the network is aiming to raise about $2.5 million in donations. So far, they have raised about $1.2 million, he said.

If Phalen goes through with the plan to create a full high school, it will be just the latest addition to the fast-growing network. Phalen started his first charter school in 2013. Now, the network runs 20 schools, educating 8,000 students in cities as far as Tampa, Florida, Phalen said. The network has expanded at such a rapid clip in large part by taking over struggling schools.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”