As Indianapolis Public Schools prepares to end its relationship with a charter school struggling with academics, staffing and enrollment, families say they want the school to get another chance.
The school district announced earlier this month that it would recommend ending a contract with Ignite Achievement Academy to operate Elder W. Diggs School 42.
IPS officials have said they don’t intend to close the school. But if board members vote Thursday to end the contract, IPS will either need to find a new operator or run the school itself.
As the main reasons for cutting ties with the K-6 school, the district listed math and English proficiency of just 4%, enrollment that has fallen by about 30%, and staff retention rates 20% below the lowest IPS-run school.
But at a community meeting of about 70 people last week, school officials rejected the district’s evaluation and pointed to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and staff. Parents, too, defended the 400-student elementary school, while acknowledging that it had work to do.
“I want them to be able to continue on, and whatever changes and growth need to be made, I want them to be given the opportunity and the resources to do so,” said Lena Dickerson, the mother of three Ignite students. “If I had to choose, I’d continue to choose them over any other school, as I’ve been doing.”
Parents want more engagement
Dickerson said the school should be given more time to address the effects of the pandemic on its students, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds and were hit especially hard by COVID-19.
To accomplish this, the school’s leadership needed to improve communication with families, Dickerson said. But she also partly blamed IPS for Ignite’s shortcomings, saying the district hasn’t supported the school.
The nonrenewal announcement from IPS caught families by surprise, leaving some with the mistaken impression that the school was shutting down entirely, Dickerson said.
Now, it’s not clear if parents have any recourse to fight the recommendation or if the decision is final, she said.
“Us as parents, how much weight does our voice hold?” Dickerson said. “The board should be coming to us, asking what do we recommend and what do we want to do.”
Ignite took over the school to raise low achievement, and is in its final year of a five-year contract with the district.
Families knew this year counted the most, said parent Shawanda Tyson, who praised the school’s unique programs, like an Afrocentric curriculum and focus on financial literacy.
“I love the model,” said Tyson, a longtime supporter. “But when I see those numbers, I’m afraid we put our kids in the same type of situation they were in before.”
Tyson said she noticed parent engagement dropped off after co-founder Brooke Beavers departed in mid-2018. When campuses were closed during the pandemic, Tyson said the school, like many others, struggled to communicate with Spanish-speaking families.
She said she hopes IPS will give the school a chance to improve; but if Ignite does lose its contract, Tyson said Indianapolis Public Schools should take over and run the school itself, rather than bring in another charter operator.
“We could become attached again and then have to be reattached if that charter can’t meet that goal either,” Tyson said. “For the last 10 years we’ve been getting disappointment after disappointment. I would like to have consistency.”
Co-founder and Head of School Shy-Quon Ely acknowledged that COVID-19 weakened the school’s connection to its families. One victim of the pandemic was its signature community engagement event — known as the Ubuntu Council — which frequently packed the school gym.
Ely said the school intended to resume the meetings when safe to do so.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to that because it really does make a difference in our momentum,” he said.
He declined to comment on an ideal outcome of IPS’ recommendations, citing the Ignite board’s decision to pursue legal remedies.
Addressing the city’s and district’s concerns
Ely said Ignite planned to improve academics by continuing on with its strategies, with the hope that the pandemic would ease and allow students to remain in school. Earlier this year, the school had to stop in-person classes for three grade levels due to an outbreak, he said.
The school’s proficiency rates on the state’s ILEARN tests for English dropped from 6% in 2019 to 4% last spring — the fourth lowest among IPS schools. Math proficiency also was 4%. (The state did not conduct testing in 2020, and administered a different test before 2019.)
But school officials have pointed out that third-grade reading scores improved by about 10 points from 2019 to 2021, from 46% to 56% of students passing the test.
IPS also cited the school’s enrollment, which has declined to less than 400 students this year, according to state data. About 80% of Ignite students are Black, 10% are Hispanic, and 6% are multiracial.
In a speech to parents and staff Thursday, Ely cited the pandemic for dropping enrollment, as families left the area.
Ely and Ignite board Chair Angela Dabney said the school had no forewarning before December that it was in jeopardy. The district and the school’s charter authorizer, the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation disagree.
The mayor’s charter school office said it had raised concerns about the school’s academics, operations, and governance in mid-2019, and issued a formal Notice of Deficiency based on academic results in August 2019.
A statement from the school said it corrected those deficiencies and passed a follow-up review.
But the mayor’s office said the issues continued. While the school showed some improvement in its third and fourth years, reviews last spring and summer showed it was still below expectations, the statement said.
The office said it informed school leadership on Oct. 6 that the school was not on track for charter renewal and on Dec. 2 that its seven-year charter was in danger of revocation.
This month the office placed the school’s charter on probation — a separate issue from the renewal process with IPS.
The school said it believed that receiving positive feedback from the mayor’s office in the past two years and the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic would be taken into consideration for a renewal.
Ignite is among more than two dozen innovation schools in the IPS network, some of which have already secured their renewal.
Jaime VanDeWalle, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said the district uses several data points to make renewal recommendations for its innovation network schools. Those include state test scores, staff retention rates, and finance and governance reports, as well as a site visit conducted in the fall of a school’s final contract year.
The district has not seen continuous growth at Ignite, VanDeWalle said. In addition to its low test scores, she said the school had not implemented a high-quality curriculum to improve performance.
The evaluation is also not made in isolation, VanDeWalle said. The district compares it with other similar schools’ metrics to account for factors like the COVID pandemic, which created challenges for all IPS schools.
“When you do that for Ignite, the lack of gains or small gains were not where they needed to be,” VanDeWalle said.
“We acknowledge there are some improvements, some bright spots, but overall, the outcomes are below what we believe every student at the district deserves.”
In response to criticism that the district hadn’t supported the school to make improvements, VanDeWalle said an innovation agreement guarantees operational and academic autonomy to the charter school. While the district did offer support, she said, it can’t order a school to accept it, as it can with a district-run school.
If the IPS board confirms the district’s recommendation on Thursday, Ignite would finish out the school year and the district would announce further plans in January.
Kasha Hayden, an instructional coach who has taught at Ignite since its first year, said Ignite students have made academic progress that isn’t easily measured on state standardized tests.
Students who come to the school in second grade not knowing their numerals leave doing addition and subtraction — which may lag behind standards, but still represents individual growth, Hayden said.
And while Hayden acknowledged that the staff turnover rate is high — with retention dropping from 89% in 2019-20 to 40% in 2020-21 — she characterized it as a function of finding the right people for the young school.
“I know firsthand from being in this building every single day that no matter what we’re going through, through a pandemic and after, that we work hard for our students and our students are definitely growing,” Hayden said.
“To change the operator again — it would be devastating to this community.”