On a recent afternoon, families squeezed into the parking lot outside Victory College Prep, where a huge yellow bow stretched across the school entrance. Victory’s executive director, giant scissors in hand, cut the ribbon, and the crowd erupted into cheers, whistles, and applause.
It looked like a fairly conventional moment for a campus opening, but this event was something else entirely. The school has been around for almost 15 years and was instead marking a new era: Victory, a 900-student campus southeast of downtown Indianapolis, is spinning off from the national charter network and becoming an independent charter school.
After years of being managed from afar by the charter network that started it, the local board that oversees Victory is betting that it can operate independently — all the while saving roughly $450,000 in administrative costs.
The shift is the latest sign that Indianapolis is increasingly a city where charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, are local — rather than part of a large national network. In this changing ecosystem, local charter leaders have increasing support to manage their schools without the expertise of larger networks.
“For Indianapolis, there isn’t as much of a need for charter management organizations as there may have been perceived to be early on,” said Patrick McAlister, who oversees charter schools for the mayor’s office. “The expertise is very locally driven.”
Being part of a national network has its benefits: It can help charter schools recruit teachers and it can lower costs for some purchases, such as insurance, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center that released a report on charter management organizations. But there can also be downsides, Lake said, noting, “As organizations become more large, bureaucratic — less nimble, there can be real costs. Large organizations tend to focus on the average, not the individual.”
When Victory opened in 2005, the Indianapolis charter movement was in its early stages. Victory used to be known as Indianapolis Lighthouse South, and it was managed by a Florida nonprofit with schools in Indiana, Arkansas, and New York.
The Lighthouse network has its own educational model and typically manages everything down to what is taught in classes. But Indianapolis leaders already have been modifying the Lighthouse model, adding their own features, such as internships and community college courses, said Ryan Gall, the school’s executive director.
“Our academic model had morphed into something that was our model, not a Lighthouse model,” Gall said.
Lighthouse had a rocky track record in Indianapolis, where it also ran an east side school, which recently closed after years of academic problems and dwindling enrollment.
The south side school, by contrast, showed impressive results. The class of 2018 had a nearly 97 percent graduation rate, and the school earned a B grade from the state as students made large gains on state tests. Victory serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The campus is southeast of downtown, but Gall said it draws students and provides busing across a large swath of the city. Most of Victory’s students are black, but there are sizable white and Hispanic populations as well.
The local board began considering last year whether it would become independent from Lighthouse, and notified the network that it might not renew, according to school leaders. Lighthouse didn’t submit a proposal to continue managing the school, according to Gall. Lighthouse Academies declined a request for comment.
Working with a national charter management organization used to offer schools access to expertise and support it would be hard to find elsewhere, Gall said. But as school choice has expanded in Indianapolis, so have supports that make it easier to run an independent charter school.
Now that the school has separated from Lighthouse, some of the biggest changes at Victory are on the administrative side. The school paid the national network about $750,000 each year for management services, Gall said.
As an independent entity, Victory created two new positions to handle many of administrative functions, including Gall’s job as executive director and a new director of operations. They also contract with outside groups to help with finances and teacher training. Even with those new costs, the school says it will see significant savings. And the local staff have found other places to save, such as on its health insurance plan and its renegotiated bus contract.
In many ways, the school likely won’t feel much different for teachers or families. The academics will stay largely the same, and the most of its staff and students are returning from last year, Gall said.
One such returning student is Ja’Rissa Watson, a senior at Victory, who said she expected the biggest change for students to be the school’s name. In part, that’s frustrating because Lighthouse was just making a name for itself in sports, said Watson, who cheers for the basketball team. At the same time, it feels like a fresh start, she said. “I feel like the energy is going to be better.”
Ashley Sciacca, who leads the English department and is in her seventh year at the school, said leaders tried to emphasize to students and staff that the main difference would be the name. But she thinks further changes will be easier to implement without being part of Lighthouse since “we no longer have this middleman or extra step that we have to go through.”
Nearly 18,000 students who live in Marion County — about 11 percent — attend charter schools. Of the dozens of charter schools in the city, however, only a handful are managed by out-of-state operators. Most are either part of local networks, such as Tindley or the Phalen Leadership Academies, or independently operated.
One of the main forces creating an ecosystem for independent charter schools is The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit. The nonprofit helped back two groups that Victory is paying for support as it breaks away from Lighthouse. One is a Nashville-based organization that works with the school on academics, leading teacher training and doing walkthrough observations of the school. The other is Indianapolis’ newly launched Center for Innovative Education Solutions, which is helping the school with finances and accounting and providing training on operations.
Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said the group is not opposed to national charter organizations like Lighthouse, but that many of the best performing schools in Indianapolis are independent charter schools. The nonprofit set out to create infrastructure so school leaders could focus on instruction without getting bogged down in operations.
“Given the growing number of autonomous schools in our city,” Brown said, “if that infrastructure didn’t exist, then those single-site schools in particular would have a really hard time surviving.”