Charter growth

These Indianapolis charter schools have proven track records. Now, they want to expand

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Freshmen physics students in Rachelle Klinger's class at Herron High School experiment with forces on pieces of paper.

With about $1 million in support from The Mind Trust, three of Indianapolis’ established charter schools are seeking to expand their local networks.

Leaders from Christel House schools, Indianapolis Classical Schools, and Paramount Schools of Excellence have been awarded fellowships worth $200,000 a year to launch new schools in the next few years, The Mind Trust announced Wednesday.

The investment reflects an interest in replicating schools “with a track record of success,” in order to improve access to high-performing schools, said The Mind Trust CEO Brandon Brown.

“You can’t only launch new schools that are really innovative,” he said. “You have to focus on the ones that are working as well.”

Indianapolis Classical Schools and Paramount had already made their intents clear to start their third schools before the fellowships were awarded. The growth of the networks are a sign of the evolution of Indiana’s 16-year-old charter scene, as charter schools with high test scores build up from single sites to small local networks of two or more schools.

Even though some area charter schools are failing to make their enrollment targets, Brown said these three networks have been in high demand from families, showing their schools can attract students from both within and outside of their neighborhoods.

“We know that we don’t have the luxury of having too many high-quality schools in our city,” Brown said.

Their expansion contrasts sharply with other charter schools that have closed, struggled with financial sustainability, or failed to achieve adequate academic results. But replication comes with its own set of problems, as proved by the money troubles that befell the fast-growing Tindley network or the now-closed Carpe Diem schools.

“Just because we’re replicating doesn’t mean we’re successful,” said Tommy Reddicks, executive director of Paramount schools, which is opening its second location this year. “Success comes from hard work.”

The first Paramount school on Indianapolis’ eastside worked its way up to A ratings from the state with top student test scores. It proved, Reddicks said, that there was a need for its community-based style of education, and that its rigorous model was serving children well.

“But the burden is on us now to replicate our success,” he said.

The Mind Trust’s charter school fellowships, launched in 2016, give school leaders one or two years to plan their schools, pursue professional development, and learn from both local and national examples and experts. The fellowships cover salary and benefits, in addition to paying for other resources such as travel to see other schools across the country. Past fellows include Katie Dorsey, who last year opened Riverside High School, the sister school to Indianapolis Classical Schools’ consistently A-rated Herron High School.

Here’s a look at the three fellows and their proposed schools:

  • Darius Sawyers will launch the third Paramount school after a one-year fellowship, a middle school seeking to be a feeder to Purdue Polytechnic High School. It will merge Paramount’s style with a “soft introduction” to Purdue Poly’s hands-on approach to science, technology, engineering, and math.
  • Carroll Bilbrey will launch a third campus of Indianapolis Classical Schools after a two-year fellowship, valued at $400,000, using the network’s classical, liberal arts model.
  • Naomi Nelson will redesign high school for Christel House schools through a two-year fellowship, with a focus on college prep. With one of the oldest charter schools in the city, the Christel House network has a long history of serving students from low-income families.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools. The school has 444 students in grades K through 4, and plans to grow year by year to eighth grade.

Rogers said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

rules and regulations

Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Nearly 10 years after virtual charter schools launched in Indiana, the fast-growing sector could face its first set of meaningful regulations aimed at cracking down on some of the state’s most problematic online schools.

In a 7-1 vote Wednesday, the Indiana State Board of Education recommended that state lawmakers impose stricter rules on virtual charter school and the agencies that oversee them. The proposed rules would stop school districts from overseeing virtual schools, eliminate a fee structure that officials say disincentivizes oversight agencies from intervening in struggling schools, and limit the growth of new and chronically underperforming virtual schools.

The recommendations would most affect two virtual charter schools that have been among Indiana’s largest and lowest-performing online schools: Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which are overseen by the small Daleville school district.

The state board also suggests new requirements to improve student engagement — an issue for the schools since students work remotely — including setting minimum student-to-teacher ratios and making an orientation mandatory before students are allowed to enroll in virtual schools. And the board calls for virtual education programs in traditional public school districts to follow similar rules as virtual charter schools.

“We’ve seen a very poor return on investment of taxpayer money for virtual education,” said board member Gordon Hendry, who led the examination of virtual charter schools. “There’s little regard for student outcomes, and virtual charters perform worse than the worst of brick-and-mortar schools.”

It remains to be seen how lawmakers might act on the recommendations in the legislative session that starts in January. Even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for action on Indiana’s failing virtual charter schools following a Chalkbeat investigation, lawmakers declined to act last year on bills aimed at improving them.

But, since then, Indiana’s virtual charter schools have attracted more attention, with their poor performance falling under the spotlight in a Congressional committee and a new virtual school making last-minute changes to its model after another Chalkbeat investigation into its oversight.

The leader of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, Percy Clark, criticized the state board’s recommendations as being contradictory. He said that because the state funds virtual charter schools at lower levels than brick-and-mortar schools, capping enrollment would prevent schools from being able to afford prescribed teacher-student ratios.

Clark also raised concerns that more rules would interfere with virtual charter schools’ ability to innovate by “forcing virtual schools to comply with traditional standards.”

Still, Hendry touted the recommendations as a critical step to setting “guardrails” for Indiana’s troubled virtual charter schools, which serve about 13,000 students and have consistently posted dismally low test scores and graduation rates.

He came down particularly hard on authorizers, the oversight agencies tasked with monitoring virtual charter schools and stepping in when schools struggle.

“I think there should be a vote of ‘no confidence,’” Hendry said, blaming authorizers for not holding virtual charter schools accountable. He said the money flowing to authorizers of virtual schools causes “a significant conflict of interest” since it’s not in the authorizers’ financial interest to close or limit the growth of schools, making them essentially “too big to fail.”

But the board balked at suggesting that a single authorizer oversee all virtual charter schools — a proposal that Hendry said came out of looking at laws in Colorado, Maine, and Oklahoma, and recommendations from national organizations such as the National Association for Charter School Authorizers and the conservative Fordham Institute.

Board member Katie Mote said that would “push too far,” raising concerns about limiting Indiana’s school choice environment.

Among the board members supporting the proposed regulations was Byron Ernest, the former head of three online schools under the Hoosier Academies network. That included Hoosier Academy Virtual School, Indiana’s first virtual charter school, which closed this year after years of failing grades.