Single-digit proficiency rates. Plummeting attendance. A work environment described in a former employee’s lawsuit as “one big mess.”
Ignite Achievement Academy came to and left Indianapolis Public Schools within just four years under challenging circumstances. Some low test scores from Elder Diggs School 42 — the traditional school Ignite took over — dropped even lower on Ignite’s watch, while attendance fell below the district average and staff retention rates became the worst in the district.
These falling scores and other poor metrics led Ignite to become just the second charter school to not have its partnership renewed with the district’s innovation network.
Yet despite the school’s challenges, the mayor’s Office of Education and Innovation (or OEI) – the school’s authorizer – has allowed the school to continue operating as an independent charter school under a new name.
Ignite has transitioned from an IPS-affiliated restart charter school to the Genius School, an independent K-6 charter school in a new location near the city’s Fairgrounds neighborhood. It is on probationary status due to poor performance.
Patrick McAlister, the director of the OEI office that has the power to revoke charters for mayor-sponsored charter schools approved by the Indianapolis Charter School Board, was not made available for an interview. But in a statement, McAlister said that the office is still monitoring the progress of the school.
“The terms of the probationary status focus on a successful transition to their new location after ending the innovation agreement with Indianapolis Public Schools and demonstrating academic improvements over the course of the next school year,” he said.
The office has set relatively ambitious goals for the school. By fall of 2023, for example, at least 8.9% of its students must be proficient in both English and math on the statewide ILEARN test. That’s the average for mayor-sponsored charter schools in 2021, and a sizable increase over the 2% deemed proficient in 2022.
An OEI spokesperson said in a statement that the benchmark will likely change given the recent test results, but did not share whether that goal would move up or down. Even if it doesn’t meet those benchmarks, the Genius School may not face immediate closure.
Turmoil came even before the school’s removal from IPS. Last year, a discrimination lawsuit against the school filed by its former curriculum director painted Ignite as a place that forced out white teachers while engaging in cronyism. The lawsuit was later settled for $48,500 and dismissed in March, according to WRTV.
The ex-employee, who is white, claimed she was fired after discovering that one of the school’s teachers had an active criminal warrant.
“Morale, as expressed by former teachers and staff, is very low, and is indicated by such comments as ‘one big mess,’ ‘broken beyond repair by nepotism/cronyism,’ ‘unstable,’” the former employee’s lawsuit stated.
Ignite denied the claims of discrimination and low morale in response to the lawsuit.
The school declined to let a Chalkbeat reporter visit, and did not make school officials available for interviews.
“We are proud of all of the growth that students made through the COVID pandemic over the past two school years,” Ignite cofounder Shy-Quon Ely said in a statement. “Our students and staff continue to improve and our Board and staff remain committed to igniting the genius that is in each and every student.”
Low proficiency, high turnover
Ignite joined the IPS innovation network in 2017-18, and was tasked with turning around School 42 in the city’s Riverside neighborhood.
School cofounders Ely and Brooke Beavers inherited a traditional public school that had received consistently failing grades from the state. In 2019, the neighborhood had a poverty rate of 35% – higher than the countywide average. The majority of students were Black.
Ignite focused on building an uplifting, community-oriented school.
“We wanted to make sure that we had a lot of opportunities for parents to be involved, for them to come in and see their children,” Ely told Chalkbeat in 2018. He is an alumnus of a fellowship program with the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has incubated Indianapolis charter schools. (The Mind Trust later supported the district’s decision not to renew its partnership with Ignite.)
Beavers left the school at the end of 2017-18.
The school built an Afrocentric curriculum, exposing students to Black history and culture to strengthen self-worth. An Ubuntu Council — a sort of parent-teacher group — engaged the school with the broader community.
Academic results, however, fluctuated. Passing rates on the third grade IREAD test dropped from 45.9% in 2018-19 to 39.6% in 2021-22; the test was not administered in 2019-20.
Under fire from the district, Ely noted that the pandemic hurt enrollment and community engagement.
But as staff retention rates dropped below 50% for the 2021-22 school year, Ignite’s former director of curriculum and instruction filed a discrimination lawsuit in March 2021 against Ignite, claiming that she was fired from the school because she was white.
The complaint from Kelly Hershey, who was hired in 2019, states that later that year, she discovered one absentee teacher had an active warrant and pending felony charges for strangulation and battery in the presence of a child.
Hershey voiced concern to the school’s principal, Jessica English. The next day, a school official told Hershey she was terminated for “illegally digging into the private information and criminal history report of a staff member,” the lawsuit claimed.
The information about the teacher’s warrant and pending charges, listed on the state’s online court case portal, is public and not illegal to access.
“(Ignite) did not fire Hershey for ‘illegally digging into private information … ,’” the complaint alleged. “(Ignite) fired her because she is white.”
An attorney for the school said the teacher in question is no longer employed by the school, but did not specify when the teacher left the school.
The complaint described other racial problems that the school disputed, including allegations that the school effectively forced a large share of white teachers to quit and fired others due to poor performance reviews, and a dispute over whether Hershey made racist remarks.
The lawsuit also alleged that Nadia Miller, the school’s chief of staff, was vice president of the company that supplied electronic equipment and IT services for the school. The school denied Hershey’s claim.
State business record filings show that a person named Nadia Miller was listed as the president of the company before it dissolved in September 2021. Miller still serves as the Genius School’s chief of staff.
A fresh start
Shawanda Tyson knows that Ignite went through troubling times.
But her two sons, now at the Paramount Brookside charter school that’s unaffiliated with IPS, still miss the school.
“The data didn’t look good, but what they gave the kids was priceless,” Tyson said. “They also helped them along their journey.”
She considered enrolling her younger son at the new Genius School, she said, but ultimately decided against it. Yet now, he’s missing the daily morning meditations and non-traditional ways of learning, she said.
“If this school doesn’t work out,” she said, “we might have to go back.”
The rebranded Genius School bills itself as uplifting “the post-pandemic child through offering a unique and holistic learning environment,” according to its description on the Enroll Indy website.
It’s unclear where enrollment stands at the school and how many families moved from Ignite to Genius. The school is sharing space with Geo Next Generation High School, a charter school also unaffiliated with IPS.
In its statement, the school did not address questions of enrollment, nor how it plans to reach the goals set by the Office of Education and Innovation.
Those goals includes increasing pass rates on the state’s IREAD literacy test for third graders from 39.6% to 74% by next year, reaching a 90% attendance rate for this school year, and outperforming students’ assigned neighborhood schools in two of four categories: proficiency in math or English, and growth in math or English.
The school, meanwhile, remains on the probationary status that OEI assigned it last December – the second level in OEI’s three-level performance improvement process, which ends with a potential revocation of a school’s charter.
Falling short of its goals, however, doesn’t mean the school faces automatic closure.
“The decision to revoke a charter is serious and can significantly affect students, staff, and families,” an OEI spokesperson said in a statement. “For that reason, OEI reserves the right to determine the best course of action at the appropriate time and informed by actions taken up until that point.”
The school’s seven-year charter term ends in June 2024. The Indianapolis Charter School Board may decide whether to recommend a charter renewal to the mayor by December 2023.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when the Indianapolis Charter School Board would decide whether to recommend the Genius School for a charter renewal. This story was also updated to reflect the departure of Ignite cofounder Brooke Beavers from the school.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at email@example.com.