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Decatur Township launches innovation school for high-ability students

Six elementary students sit talking at a table with papers and pencils.

Third graders in Decatur Township’s High Ability Program work on math problems in groups. The program will turn into an innovation school — an autonomous school within the district — with assistance from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit.

Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat

Decatur Township will transform its high-ability program into Marion County’s first innovation school outside of Indianapolis Public Schools.

The Decatur High Ability Academy will launch in the next school year, and will exclusively serve high-ability students who officials say are often overlooked. Decatur district officials also hope the new school will help expand its high-ability program, which serves more than 90 students in grades 3-6 and shares space with the district’s School for Excellence alternative high school on the southwest side of Indianapolis.

Decatur’s announcement on Friday also marks a new phase for the innovation school model, which allows for more operational flexibilities and exemptions from union contracts. Although a 2015 state law enacted allows for the model statewide, it has been used almost exclusively by IPS as a way to collaborate with competing charter schools. (Theodore College and Career Academy in Gary previously operated as an innovation school before closing.) 

While many IPS innovation schools are run by charter operators, Decatur’s new school won’t be a charter. It will be overseen by a board of directors.

The public reception to the high-ability school could also be quite different from the track record in IPS, where the innovation model — which can be used to offer niche educational programming but also to improve struggling traditional public schools — has sometimes been met with open hostility.   

Launching the Decatur High Ability Academy as an innovation school means it will be open to students outside of Decatur Township, which as a district generally does not accept students beyond its borders.

“Everything we do is centered around our students and what’s best for kids,” said Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Hofer. “And without any exception we are doing what’s best for kids right now and we’re very proud of that.”

Officials say the academy will have certain flexibility in curriculum and staffing decisions. As an innovation school, the staff will not be considered part of the Decatur Education Association, the local teachers’ union. But Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said salaries for the staff at the High Ability Academy will be the same as those for district staff in the union, if not higher. 

“We will never, ever penalize someone that wants to be able to work in this innovation opportunity,” he said. 

District officials hope that the new High Ability Academy will enroll up to 200 students next year.  The school is also receiving $900,000 from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that incubates charter and innovation schools in the Indianapolis area.

Admission into the high-ability program features a variety of factors, including state test scores, scores on the third grade state reading test, and teacher recommendations. 

The school will continue the current program’s emphasis on project-based learning. The program features an innovation hub that includes a sound booth and presentation room where students can work on hands-on projects that are part of the curriculum.

The unique approach has challenged students like Emme and Noah McFarland, who enjoy the program’s emphasis on hands-on learning. Their mother, Juli McFarland, said the high-ability program gives them the opportunity to solve problems. 

“They are told, ‘This is what we would like for you to do,’ but they can take it and they can make it their own,” she said. 

The school will grow beyond the third floor of the shared building and move into part of the second floor, where officials plan to build another innovation hub for the school. 

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this story included an incorrect amount of funding that the Mind Trust gave the Decatur High Ability Academy.

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