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Fellowship program that trains future school leaders inspired three new Indy charter school plans

Michael Nagel, who would be a board member for the proposed Circle City Preparatory Charter School, speaks in support of the idea at a public hearing of the Indiana Charter School Board Wednesday.
Michael Nagel, who would be a board member for the proposed Circle City Preparatory Charter School, speaks in support of the idea at a public hearing of the Indiana Charter School Board Wednesday.
Scott Elliott

Among the wave of new charter schools scheduled to open in Indianapolis over next two years are three that are the product of an unusual fellowship program.

The program, run by a Boston-based nonprofit called Building Excellent Schools, every year selects a small group of future school leaders from around the country for a year-long training program that prepares them to build and run schools.

The fellows spends a year visiting high-performing schools to study what works and what doesn’t. Then they each design a school — and get advice and support as they apply for charters and work toward opening their dream schools.

The program has led to the creation of more than 100 new charter schools in 25 cities, but, so far, none have come to Indianapolis.

That is about to change.

One school emerging from the program has already received a charter to open this fall, and two more got public hearings last night before the state charter board.

“It’s exciting because we have a community of like-minded leaders,” said Megan Murphy, a former director of teacher leadership for Teach For America in Indianapolis.

Murphy used her Building Excellent Schools fellowship to draft plans for the Circle City Preparatory Charter School, which she hopes will serve about 500 students in grades K-8 on the city’s East side and which had its public hearing last night.

Another former fellow pitching his charter school proposal last night was Luke Lennon, a former assistant principal at Tindley Preparatory Academy. Lennon wants to open Civic Collegiate Public Charter School, a combined middle and high school for up to 900 students grades 6-12 in Broad Ripple that could potentially share a building with ACE Prep – the third product of the Building Excellent Schools fellowship coming to Indianapolis.

ACE Preparatory Academy already has charter board approval and is scheduled to open next school year in Broad Ripple for grades K-5. Its founder, Anna Shults, is a former Indiana Teacher of the Year and worked at the Indiana Department of Education.

Building Excellent Schools is not a charter school operator or a unified network of schools, like KIPP or Carpe Diem — two national networks that operate charter schools in Indianapolis — but the fellows come from a common background.

Its year-long training is designed to impart core values that usually become a part of the founding principles of the schools its fellows open. But the whole design of the fellowship is built on encouraging future school leaders to explore the best ideas they find in the schools they visit during the fellowship year with the hope that they borrow and combine ideas to create their own unique school plans.

“We do believe there are things that work for all schools,” Murphy said. “But there are particular needs to adapt to every city and neighborhood.”

Lennon and Murphy wanted to start their schools in Indianapolis in part because both grew up here.

Murphy is a Brebeuf High School graduate who went to Trinity University in Texas and earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She taught in St. Louis before returning to Indianapolis to work for Teach for America.

Lennon is a Lawrence Central High School graduate who went to the University of Notre Dame, taught through Teach For America and has education master’s degrees from both Marian University and Columbia University.

The visions they described at the public hearings had a lot in common. Both schools will focus on preparing students to succeed in college with a rigorous curriculum. Both plan to use data analysis to track student progress, and both aim to build character among students by encouraging them to become involved in community activism.

There are key differences between the schools, however. Murphy’s Circle City, an elementary school, will have a longer school day and 39 additional school days per year while Lennon’s Civic Collegiate will be a middle and high school that balances basic skills learning with a heavy dose of social and civics studies. The idea is for students to become adults who are mission-driven and focused on improving their communities, Lennon said.

The charter board held hearing on a total of four schools at the Central Library last night, attracting about 50 people, mostly supporters of the schools.

Speaking in support of Circle City Prep, for instance, was Sharnell Johnson, the director of accounting at Ivy Tech Community College and a board member for the proposed school.

“Seventy percent of our students come unprepared to college in reading, writing and math,” she said of the college. “That is a problem. It’s the largest part of our budget.”

Dannielle Patterson, who would be on the board of Civic Collegiate, said the neighborhood needs more high-quality schools.

“I am from the area,” said Patterson, who works at Eli Lilly and Company. “I was fortunate somebody saw my potential and put me on the path to college. It’s a great opportunity to build that fire in the belly of students to succeed.”

The two non-fellowship schools that had hearings Wednesday were:

  • Gateway Preparatory Academy. This school’s developer is Carlos May, who worked as a policy adviser, director of Latino affairs and neighborhood liaison for the city of Indianapolis in the administration of former Mayor Greg Ballard. May, who has a law degree and previously ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican in the seventh district, pitched a school for the city’s West side for 350 students in grades K-8. The school would follow a curriculum based on principles developed by the Boston-based Universal Design for Learning.
  • Rosa Parks: A Challenge Foundation Academy. The Challenge Foundation supports 15 affiliated charter schools in Indiana, Arizona and North Carolina. The foundation’s first charter school was in Indianapolis and is now known as Avondale Meadows Academy but is no longer affiliated with the foundation. Challenge Foundation is affiliated with the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence, a charter school that opened last year, and has also proposed a new charter school for South Bend. The group has not yet selected a school leader for Indianapolis.

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