Once its competitor, an established charter network now wants to join IPS

One of the city’s largest charter operators could soon join Indianapolis Public Schools, in the latest sign that the line between charter and traditional public schools is becoming blurrier.

The Tindley charter network, which educates about 1,600 students at five schools, is one of eight operators that submitted letters of interest to join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, according to a presentation to the board Thursday. Innovation schools are independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella.

The innovation strategy is radically altering the district. Three years after Indianapolis Public Schools began creating innovation schools, about one in four students now attend one. They include struggling neighborhood campuses that were restarted with new operators, schools that voluntarily converted, and existing charter campuses pulled into the district.

For Tindley, which is authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, the process is still early in the process, and the partnership may not ultimately come to fruition. But the charter network’s interest in joining the district is the latest sign that innovation schools have reshaped the education landscape in Indianapolis.

“Just a handful of years ago, the notion that a high-performing, well-regarded charter operator would proactively choose to partner with IPS would’ve seemed crazy,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools.

Tindley opened its first campus in 2004, just two years after Indiana’s first charter schools. Since then, the schools have developed a reputation both for strict discipline and for strong test results and high graduation rates. The schools have drawn particular praise from charter school advocates because they serve students who have historically lacked access to quality education — about 90 percent of students are black and most of them are poor enough to receive discounted meals.

Tindley has long competed with Indianapolis Public Schools for students. Six years ago, the conflict came to a head when the state board of education took over a failing Indianapolis Public Schools high school and hired Tindley, then known as EdPower, to take the helm. Just three years into that endeavor, the network pulled out of the deal over funding disputes, and the school was returned to the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that if the partnership goes through, it could help improve efficiency and give district families a new option.

“You could see over the next couple of years the majority of the schools that are authorized by the mayor’s office with some type of relationship with IPS,” Ferebee said. “That’s going to be something that’s beneficial to taxpayers as we are bringing our resources together.”

Patrick McAlister, who leads the mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, was more restrained.

“Innovation network school partnerships work for some charter school operators, but not for all,” he wrote in an email. “It’s a decision they have to make based on their own individual models and operating philosophy.”

Despite its relative academic success, Tindley has had money problems in recent years. After rapidly expanding, the network missed enrollment goals, causing financial problems in 2015.

It is unclear how the partnership could alter the network’s financial situation. When the well-established charter school Herron High School joined the innovation network in 2017, the move came with a funding boost from IPS. But the financial costs and benefits of becoming an innovation school hinge on the details of the contract, which vary school-by-school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said in a statement that the partnership could benefit students and families. She did not respond to follow up questions on how the agreement might benefit the school or what it would mean for its financial situation.

“As the education landscape continues to evolve, we believe it is our responsibility to explore all opportunities that have the potential to benefit our scholars and families,” she wrote, adding that in order to offer the best quality education, the network must “gain an understanding of all options accessible to us.”

If Tindley pursues the partnership, an application is due Nov. 1. The Indianapolis Public Schools board would be expected to vote on an agreement by March.

The other charter schools that submitted letters of interest are KIPP Indy Legacy High School, Purdue Polytechnic High School Indy North, Phalen Academies, and Invent Learning Hub. Two existing schools submitted letters of interest in converting to innovation status: Sankofa at School 99 and School 94. Tindley, Phalen, and PATH School submitted applications to restart schools existing schools.