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.


Tennessee sides with Memphis and Nashville boards in rejecting four new charter schools

Members of Tennessee's State Board of Education listen to recommendations on charter school appeals during their two-day meeting in Cookeville.

Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to deny their applications.

Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.

Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.

The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.

Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.

“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”

The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.

Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.

But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.

Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.

Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.

“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.

The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.

This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.

By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”