A young girl tugs on her mother’s hand as the two weave their way through a crowd of people waiting in line for homemade tacos. She is focused on a star-throwing game in the shade of a blue tent.
The girl gets her mom’s attention, and when they get closer to the tent, Francisco Valdiosera, waiting nearby, sees his chance to get his first question in: “What grade is she in?”
Valdiosera is out on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at the local taco festival at the Lafayette Place Shopping Center to find families interested in enrolling in Monarca Academy, a new charter school slated to open this fall. Valdiosera, the school’s executive director, has been on this mission for the past several weeks to form his first class of students.
In Indianapolis, a city friendly to school choice, new charter schools open each year, and they all face the same challenge: Who’s going to go to their school?
Some new schools are able to attract students through a reputation earned from other pre-existing branches — people know the name. Other charters are stepping in to run an existing school.
But for charter schools like Monarca, which is starting from scratch, finding students can be a challenge. For its first year, Monarca is only enrolling sixth graders, which is not a natural transition point within Indianapolis Public Schools or Wayne Township. So, Valdiosera is looking for students who still need to choose a school or want to switch with just over two months left before the school year begins.
Monarca is competing with 11 districts and dozens of charter schools in Indianapolis to be the best fit for a student. As a new school, Valdiosera doesn’t have results to show families and instead must rely on the promise of his vision for the school.
“A new school has difficulty enrolling,” Valdiosera said. “One of the things that parents will say even if they’re very, very interested in the model, is ‘Well, we’ll wait a year to see if you’re still around. We’ve seen what has happened in the past.’”
The school currently has 20 students enrolled, but hopes to open in August with about 50. Monarca will be located in a wing of Northwest Middle School, after reaching an agreement with IPS at the end of April to use the building for one year.
Valdiosera is from Michoacán, Mexico, home of the monarch butterfly, the school’s logo and namesake. The butterfly, he said, symbolizes many things, including the personal growth he hopes students will see at the academy. The plan is to grow the number of students gradually, to eventually serve around 700 students from sixth to twelfth grades by 2028.
‘I don’t count the hours’
Valdiosera, dressed in a gray blazer over his new Monarca Academy T-shirt, stands among dozens of people in the heat of the taco festival. They’re eating mango slices and sipping piña coladas, while he stands offering a clipboard and pen to passing families.
Monarca Academy’s team is staffed by volunteers and their families in addition to existing board members and founding principal Felicia Sears. They gather around tables and under tents at events to make the community aware of the school.
Every few minutes a family walks by, and Valdiosera tries to start a conversation. One family in particular doesn’t have any children heading to sixth grade, but they’re listening to what Valdiosera has to say. He emphasizes that Monarca is a free public school and will be working to make students college ready.
“So if you know anybody,” he adds, trying to raise his voice above the Latin rock playing in the background, “Monarca is going to be a great option for them.”
Valdiosera is so busy preparing for the first day of school, he said he has a lot of Netflix to catch up on. He balances chauffeuring his three kids to and from school and various appointments with planning food services, interviewing possible teachers, and meeting with parents.
However, when asked how many hours he spends on his work, he said, “I don’t count the hours,” he said. “If I did, that means there’s something about the work that I’m not liking.”
While most parents did not immediately enroll their children during the festival, by the end of the weekend, Valdiosera said they had collected more than 100 leads on possible students and families.
‘Based on trust’
In the same weekend at St. Gabriel International Festival, Valdiosera spent almost half an hour listening to the concerns of a mother who homeschools her children. Other parents smiled and politely declined to talk. They already have a school, they said. Others took the informational handouts and stowed them in bags.
Kimberly Neal-Brannum was in a similar position in 2020 when she enrolled the first students at Believe Circle City High School where she is the founder and executive director. While her in-person efforts were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal-Brannum said it was important to engage with parents and students when possible.
“Before you have a building, before you have results and data to share, parents are going to enroll their scholars based on trust and whether they feel like they can trust the person that’s going to be leading the school,” Neal-Brannum said.
Monarca is partnering with Enroll Indy, a local organization that provides resources to parents to help them choose and enroll at schools. Statistically, Indianapolis parents signing up their children for school during the late enrollment period are more likely to be from low-income households. Over the past several years, Enroll Indy has successfully narrowed the economic gap between early and late enrolled students. But Valdiosera hopes he can still provide a quality option for parents who have yet to decide.
Earlier this year, when Kindezi Academy announced it would be closing, parent Star Running said she wasn’t sure about her next steps. She had limited time to get her daughter Caelyn enrolled in another school and was also planning to move.
But just as she was starting to worry in late May, Running met Valdiosera outside Kindezi Academy. She said she was hopeful after hearing about Monarca Academy. After discussing it with her daughter, they enrolled by the end of May. Running said she is excited about the diversity of backgrounds Valdiosera said the school would foster. The family, who is Native American, said they were excited about the possibility of teaching other students about their identity.
“I get told a lot living out here that there’s really no Native Americans out here at all,” she said. “That people never meet any or see any, so I think I’m excited to bring something to the school and teach them a little bit about who we are and where we come from.”
Helen Rummel is a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area. Contact Helen at email@example.com.