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New charter school's goal: Keep kids from returning to jail

Indianapolis Charter School Board members  John Mutz and Anne Shane ask questions about a plan for a new charter school in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center.
Indianapolis Charter School Board members John Mutz and Anne Shane ask questions about a plan for a new charter school in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center.
Hayleigh Colombo

A Marion County judge and the head of the county’s juvenile detention center think a new charter school is the way help kids who have gotten into serious trouble with the law erase that stigma by adding a new, better label: high school graduate.

To get there, the school will copycat some elements of a successful chain of dropout recovery high schools run by Goodwill Industries. Those schools, called Excel Centers, have a strong record not only of getting dropouts to earn diplomas but also to garner better paying jobs or even enroll in college.

If the approach can work with kids who are in the greatest danger of heading to a life of crime, not only will their futures be improved the entire city can benefit, said Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth.

“If we can intervene sooner in a student’s life and ensure they have that diploma, our hope is it’s going to address public safety,” he said. “It’s an oversimplification to assume that more police on the streets is the only way you go about addressing crime. We need to be addressing crime in a holistic way. One essential piece is intervening sooner in an educational way.”

The Indianapolis Charter School Board tonight approved Alternatives in Education Inc.’s plan for what will be called Francis Marion Academy, a charter school which will operate out of the detention center on Keystone Avenue along with a bigger, outside facility that will serve students who have left the detention center and along with other high-risk youth.

Francis Marion Academy would serve a maximum of 446 students at both facilities by 2019, and would serve grades 6-12. The group expects it would primarily serve poor, minority and special education students.

The charter school could eventually replace an education program at the center run by Indianapolis Public Schools. The school also could ultimately operate under the district’s umbrella using a law passed earlier this year that allows special partnerships between the district and autonomous charter schools.

“This is an opportunity to take students who don’t have anything good going on and give them hope,” said Scott Bess, a board member of Alternatives in Education, who also is chief operating officer of Goodwill’s Education Initiatives. “We don’t underestimate the difficulty that it’s going to take.”

Francis Marion Academy will hire INIschools to provide back-end support and assistance for the new school. INIschools is affiliated with Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana Inc. and Goodwill Education Initiatives Inc., which currently operates nine Excel Centers across Indiana.

Bess, who said his affiliation with Goodwill is separate from his position on AIE’s board, said Francis Marion Academy would apply some of the same techniques as the Excel Center. The students at both schools face a similar problem: they feel they’ve been prejudged in a way that makes getting hired for a job or succeeding in life more difficult.

“You say the word dropout and you immediately form in your head an (image) of a student,” Bess said. “We have a great track record of getting those students employed or getting into college. The act of completing high school … erases to a large extent, the label. Now the label is high school graduate.”

Charles Parkins, detention center superintendent, and Marion Superior Judge Clark Rogers were two of the people behind the idea for Francis Marion Academy. They’ll join Bess as board members.

“This work will be hard, however, the partnerships we have been able to forge … have strengthened our resolve to do this work and to do it right,” Parkins said.

Mayor Greg Ballard announced his support for the idea over the weekend.

Indiana reported in 2013 it has a 34 percent overall juvenile recidivism rate. The top two predictors of recidivism, or repeat offenders, are employment and education, according to research gathered for the school’s charter application.

Charter School Board member Anne Shane called the proposal “desperately needed in our community.”

For the 2014-15 transitional school year, Bess said Alternatives in Education would work with IPS’s existing program under a memorandum of understanding. The new program would then significantly beef up the amount of teaching and learning time per student, with students receiving 360 minutes of instruction a day, up from 160 minutes per day now.

Francis Marion Academy wouldn’t begin operating as an independent charter school until the 2015-16 school year, when it would operate out of the detention center along with another off-site school which would serve kids exiting the detention center along with kids in need of specialized attention when it comes to discipline or who have previously been expelled.

Alternatives In Education is considering School 37, near the detention center, as a possible location. IPS voted to close the school there in 2007.

City-County Councilor John Barth, who is a member of the charter school board, supported the idea for the charter but had reservations.

“The only thing I still struggle with a little bit is the financial model,” Barth said. “I haven’t gotten my head around that.”

Bess said he acknowledged it’s tough to run a school with base-level state funding. His team plans to apply for federal and private grants, along with seeking philanthropic support.

Retired State Rep. William Crawford said during the public hearing he was on the fence about the charter school’s plan, and urged the school’s operators to make sure they were following all legal requirements.

Kloth said the city would work with Alternatives in Education to make sure all state and federal rules would be met.

New Lighthouse Academies school approved

The charter school board also approved the charter for Indianapolis Lighthouse College Prep Academy East, which will open during the 2015-16 year on Indianapolis’ far Eastside and will be run by Lighthouse Academics of Indiana Inc.

The school will eventually serve grades 7-12 and enroll up to 600 by 2018-19. The new school will copy the format of Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School on the city’s South side and will operate in the former location of Monument Lighthouse Charter School, which decided not seek to renew its charter with the city last fall because of low test scores.

The parent company that manages the schools is Lighthouse Academies of Massachusetts, which operates charters in eight states.The Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School earned a C on its state report card in 2013 and an A the previous year, and has made progress on standardized tests, while the Monument Lighthouse Charter School earned a D on its state report card in 2012 and showed only slight gains in student performance.

“We know what works on the South side,” said Steven Pelych, who will be principal of the new school. “We are eager to offer that same opportunity for students in a new community.”

The 2014-15 school year will serve as a transition year for the school in which leaders hope to form relationships and partnerships with the community.

“I commend you for starting in 2015-16 and not trying to slap together some program and hope that you can sell it to us,” said charter board member Lindan Hill, who is dean of the School of Education at Marian University.

Barth questioned whether the Lighthouse team could create a dynamic school culture at the new school.

“You have to have the leadership to do that,” Barth said.

Regional vice president Ryan Gall, who has previously served as principal of Lighthouse’s South side school, said the Lighthouse had a strong team for the new school.

“We’re sending a pocket of leadership that has a proven record of results in our system,” Gall said.

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