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Students at the Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

Students at the Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

A fast-growing charter network is planning a high school 0.8 miles from a closed IPS campus

At the same time Indianapolis Public Schools is closing campuses, a charter network is starting a high school – just blocks from the just-shuttered John Marshall building on the far eastside.

Phalen Leadership Academy will add ninth grade to its middle-school campus, with the ultimate aim of creating a full high school, said founder Earl Phalen. The school is at 4352 Mitthoeffer Road, on the distant edge of Indianapolis Public Schools and less than a mile down the road from John Marshall, a campus the district first converted to a middle school then closed this spring.

The shift in the neighborhood is the latest chapter in decades of shrinkage of Indianapolis Public Schools, as families left for charter, suburban, and private schools. Now, the district is facing a paradox: Low enrollment led the school board to close half its high schools over two years in an effort to save money and improve the academic offerings at the remaining four centrally located campuses. But closing neighborhood high schools at the geographic fringes could expose Indianapolis Public Schools to more competition for families who no longer live near a district school.

Phalen’s announcement underscores its rapid growth in Indianapolis. Its expanded school, which currently has a charter for ninth grade, eventually hopes to enroll 400 students in grades nine through 12, Phalen said. That could increase enrollment in the non-profit charter network’s schools on the far eastside to about 1,500 students. That’s almost as many students as Speedway, a tiny district on the west side of the city.

Marshall long had a reputation for academic problems and violence, but the school enrolled nearly 800 middle and high school students in 2016-17. With Marshall closed, the district will allow all students to choose among four high school campuses.

The closest options will be Shortridge and Arsenal Technical high schools, which are both nearly 10 miles away.

“As nice of a school as Tech is, that’s a far ride for our kids, especially kids who want to play sports and do things that last after school,” said Nicole Fama, principal of the Phalen middle school. “They don’t have a neighborhood school really now.”

For Krystale Massey, the changing school landscape is clear. When she was growing up on the far eastside, everybody in the neighborhood went to the same school. Now, kids go to township and charter schools as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. Her own daughter goes to high school in Lawrence Township.

But Massey has three younger children in schools managed by Phalen, and she’s glad they may be able to stay with the network once they reach high school. Her children like the teachers, and they are doing well academically.

“They feel comfortable there,” Massey said. “You want your kids to at least feel comfortable at a school they are attending.”

Phalen got its start on the far eastside when it took over School 93 and School 103, two elementary schools. Those schools are not directly in competition with the district because they are in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network and are managed by Phalen through contracts with the district. But they gave the charter network a foothold in an area without many schools with good test results.

As Phalen elementary students matriculated, network leaders decided to launch a middle school, which opened this year with seventh- and eighth-graders.

“The question then becomes, what happens to our eighth graders?” Phalen asked. “There really is not a great option for high schoolers on the far eastside, so we decided to expand to the ninth grade.”

The middle school is only using about half of the building, and beginning this fall, Phalen will open a ninth-grade wing. To create a high school on the other half of the campus, said Phalen, the network is aiming to raise about $2.5 million in donations. So far, they have raised about $1.2 million, he said.

If Phalen goes through with the plan to create a full high school, it will be just the latest addition to the fast-growing network. Phalen started his first charter school in 2013. Now, the network runs 20 schools, educating 8,000 students in cities as far as Tampa, Florida, Phalen said. The network has expanded at such a rapid clip in large part by taking over struggling schools.