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New Christel House charter school hopes to be neighborhood anchor

Oliver Morrison

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard marveled at the progress on Indianapolis’ West side this morning as he stood before a gleaming new school on the site of what was once a gloomy, empty old hospital.

“A few years ago, you’d drive down Washington Street and all you saw was weeds and old buildings that looked like no one took care of them,” Ballard told a crowd at the dedication for the Christel House West charter school. “If you drive down Washington Street heading west now, that’s not what you see. Things will continue to grow here, and you see tremendous residential opportunities, you see seniors, and you see this great institution called Christel House.”

The new school, which opened in August, has about 130 students in kindergarten to second grade with plans to expand over six years to more than 400. Expanding charter schools with strong records of test scoring success to troubled areas has become a centerpiece of Ballard’s efforts to revive struggling areas of the city.

Building on the success of The Meadows, a neighborhood anchored by Tindley Accelerated Schools and Avondale Meadows Academy (a new name for the Challenge Foundation Academy), Ballard enticed Christel House to the Central State Hospital site. In August, he dedicated the new Visions Academy charter school, run by the Challenge Foundation, in the 16 Tech area on the North side.

In each case, the schools are central to a wider plan for better housing, shopping and public amenities. The Central State site has been renamed Central Greens.

Inside the school, Principal Rick Hunt said students, who struggled just to walk in straight lines the first week, now are learning more and developing their own sense of belonging.

“To see that community start to build quickly — I thought it would take longer,” Hunt said. “In every classroom you get the sense they believe they’re a team and they believe they’re a community … And as we’re getting the families invested, that’s what I love about being a principal, that community feel.”

Christel House, begun in Indianapolis by local philanthropist Christel DeHaan, was one of the states earliest charter schools when it opened on the south side. That campus, now called Christel House South, has added a high school and a dropout recovery school. The network’s expansion was helped along by a charter school incubator — a joint effort of Ballard’s office and The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit that advocates for educational change.

Antwanita Berry, who moved her family from Gary, enrolled her son Blake in kindergarten at Christel House West because she wasn’t happy with her experience in public school. In the past, her children’s teachers didn’t take enough time to go over lessons with students and had trouble making the work engaging and fun, she said.

Her son loves his class, she said, especially activities like visiting the community farm near the school. Plus, Berry can volunteer, and she thinks the school values her involvement as a parent.

“I see that this is the type of school that wants support and is doing things differently from where I came from in the public school system,” she said. “And I just think that’s awesome.”

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