Tuesday was another nerve-wracking new start for Quentin Brown, this time standing before a gleaming, recently constructed school.
Brown, wearing a red striped tie, tried not to sweat in the intense sunlight as he stepped forward to give the student speech welcoming dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school on the city’s East side.
Because he can’t help but gesture with his hands while speaking, Brown struggled a bit to keep the microphone close to his lips and his handwritten speech in sight as he talked. But when he spoke about how hard it can be to stay optimistic for the future, Brown didn’t need the paper or the mic.
“I thought I would just fail again like at the other schools,” he said as he told his classmates of his worries walking in the door of a school where most of the learning is done on computer. “I thought I had no hope. But they seemed enthusiastic about me coming to Carpe Diem.”
When Carpe Diem came to town three years ago with its first campus on Meridian Street, just south of Fall Creek, it was the city’s first school to lean heavily on a cutting-edge but controversial strategy called “blended learning.”
Students spend most of their time sitting in cubicles learning independently by working through online programs.
The goal for Carpe Diem schools is 300 students and only five teachers. The Shadeland campus has about 80 students right now in grades 6-10. Students do meet in core classes for part of the day, where they focus on group work and individual help. Instructional aides also are on-hand in the school’s large cubicle-laden main room to offer help.
The original campus now has about 225 students and posted strong initial test scores. It equaled the state average with 73 percent passing ISTEP — 20 points above the IPS average — the first year, but the passing rate slipped in 2014 to 62.7 percent. The slide meant the school earned a D for its first grade.
Still, it was a strong enough start that the Arizona-based company opened two new campuses. The other is on the West side on 38th Street.
“We want to educate, we want to empower and we want to equip,” said Harold Niehaus, Carpe Diem’s chief learning officer. “We want take you from where you are and move you forward so you can be successful.”
That’s what Brown wants, too. He should be a senior, but he only has enough credits to be in 10th grade.
Two years ago, as Carpe Diem came to town, Brown was living through the transition at Arlington High School as the state took over from Indianapolis Public Schools and handed it off to be run by the Tindley charter school network.
Back then, Brown was quoted in the Indianapolis Star saying he thought Arlington was improved after Tindley took over. It had been chaotic under IPS, he said. Brown said he struggled to learn in large classes, for example, when the district was in charge.
There were some good moments for Brown after the Tindley takeover. He played Lord Montague in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, for one. But the transition to Tindley was hard, too. There were new rules, but in other ways, he said, the school didn’t change that much.
“I’m not trying to bash Arlington, but it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he said.
After bouncing to other schools he was homeschooled last year. When he got a flyer in the mail about Carpe Diem, he and his mother decided to find out if he could get a fresh start there.
Brown wasn’t sure about the blended learning concept and spending so much time on a computer, but Principal Byron Brown (no relation) won him over.
“Sometimes a change in environment or relationship can actually change a kid,” Byron Brown said. “Look at him. After just four weeks, he’s giving a speech to the whole school.”