Natasha Leavell loved what the HIM By HER charter school offered her fifth-grade son: a focus on performing arts, Black culture, and a diverse staff.
She even started working there, where she enjoyed helping second graders. The school provided anything the children needed, she said.
So the school’s abrupt closure over winter break left Leavell and other families devastated. It was the latest upheaval for Martindale-Brightwood, a predominantly Black neighborhood that for generations has endured numerous school closings.
This time, families were sent scrambling by a charter school that initially failed to win permission to open, fell short of enrollment projections, cycled through multiple principals, and lacked timely financial oversight from its authorizer, Ball State University, according to documents from Ball State and minutes from the school’s board meetings.
With barely a month’s notice, more than 200 students plus the school’s staff members had to find new schools and jobs mid-school year. The closure has raised questions of charter school oversight.
“This whole HIM By HER closing epitomizes a major problem with the charter schools, and that is the accountability piece,” said Rev. David Greene, head of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, which joined other groups last month in suggesting a moratorium on charter schools.
HIM by HER Collegiate School for the Arts operated for 2½ years under the auspices of Ball State University, launching against all odds during the pandemic.
Most charter schools in Marion County are approved by either the Indiana Charter School Board or the mayor’s office. State law also allows other entities, including universities, to authorize and oversee charter schools.
Proponents of charter schools say they offer parents public school options beyond those available at traditional neighborhood schools.
A denial by one authorizer doesn’t preclude an approval by another. Each authorizer has its own standards. That enables would-be school operators to go “authorizer shopping” — seeking approval from one entity if they are denied by another.
Indiana Charter School Board staff twice recommended that the board deny the HIM By HER Foundation a charter in 2018 and again in 2019, citing concerns about the school’s financial projections and educational model. The board voted to deny the school in the spring of 2019.
Founded by Harry and Michelle Dunn, the foundation is dedicated to helping underserved communities. HIM By HER stands for Help Improve Mankind By Healing Every Race.
After the rejection, the foundation approached Ball State, which approved the school proposal to open in 2020-21 on the site of the old IPS School 73.
But HIM by HER changed course and opened instead at a building more than four times the size on the former IPS Forest Manor Middle School campus. That involved leasing the site from a private Utah company that purchased the parcel from IPS in 2020.
The cost of the lease is unclear, but it appears to be a factor in the school’s closure. In a December letter to parents, the board said that the school did not have enough students to support and maintain the building.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, get state payments based on the number of students they serve. HIM By HER was a small school operating on a large campus.
For a school to close midyear is rare, said Veronica Brooks-Uy, vice president of policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which sets forth best authorization practices. To guard against that happening, an authorizer should follow those measures, including monitoring a school’s finances at least quarterly, she said.
“Absent extraordinary circumstances, an authorizer’s review of applications and strong oversight should prevent that kind of thing from happening,” she said.
Ball State did not grant requests for an interview nor answer questions about its charter authorization process, but in a statement said it closely monitored the school’s enrollment. The university ensured the school returned state overpayments made during the first year due to shortfalls in enrollment, and knew the school negotiated a delay in paying its rent, the statement read.
“While we regret the disruption of a school closure, we are confident the leadership of HIM By HER is working tirelessly to support families and employees in this difficult transition, and continuing its commitment to the neighborhoods surrounding the school,” the statement said.
Board Chairman Harry Dunn did not respond to requests for comment. Of the other six board members, two responded to a reporter’s query but either declined to comment without board approval or referred requests to Dunn.
HIM By Her submitted various proposals
The HIM By HER Foundation recast its proposal, including leadership and grade configuration, with every application.
In its spring 2018 proposal to the Indiana Charter School Board, the foundation suggested opening at Broad Ripple High School to provide hands-on learning in a school that would grow to pre-K through 12th grades. It listed Keith White as principal.
Staff for the state board recommended denial, but the board instead postponed a decision until fall 2018. The foundation submitted an application for that review cycle, but later withdrew it.
Reapplying again in spring 2019, the foundation said it would gradually grow a K-8 school at the former IPS School 73 and listed Clete Ladd as principal. State board staff again recommended denial, citing financial concerns and a lack of research-based best educational practices. The board denied the application.
Later in 2019, the foundation sought authorization elsewhere, proposing a K-8 school focusing on marginalized families in the Martindale-Brightwood area and embracing nine cultural themes of African-American communities. Ball State approved the application.
“[HIM By Her] believes that populations in Indianapolis are effectively part of a school-to-prison pipeline, and there is a long-felt but unmet need for a school to interrupt the pipeline,” the foundation said in its proposal to Ball State.
The application touted support from “well-known celebrities,” such as former NFL and NBA players whom it said had pledged to help with recruitment.
In a statement, Ball State acknowledged that the school had previously been rejected for authorization.
“It is not unusual for applicants to not be approved for a charter, learn from that experience, and then refine their plans,” a university spokesperson said.
But Ladd said he resigned as principal before the school opened.
He worried about the board’s decision to move the school from the 47,000-square-foot School 73 to the 200,000-square-foot Forest Manor Middle School.
“The building was too big, the building needed too much repair,” Ladd said. In addition, he said, the school already had told the community it would open in School 73.
Pat Payne, director of the IPS racial equity office who was listed as a member of the proposal development team in the school’s 2018 application, said she requested her name be removed from all documents pertaining to the school when she found out the HIM By HER Foundation was launching a charter school.
“I’m not a charter proponent at all,” she said.
Growing financial concerns at school led to shutdown
After the charter school opened in 2020, it grew from 63 children in K-2 to 224 in K-6 this school year, according to state enrollment records — just below the 240 it projected by its third year.
Still, its financial status was not certain. Ball State apparently neglected to keep up on audits of the school.
The university was behind on two years’ worth of audits, the HIM By HER school board was told in a meeting shortly before the school announced its closure. The university did not respond to questions about the delay.
But it issued a statement indicating that low initial enrollment created an obstacle that doomed the school. The university said the school’s opening enrollment fell well below its projection and required the school to return to the state $139,054 in overpayments.
“Despite HIM By HER’s strong growth in enrollment over the next two years, the net effect of the low first-year enrollment was a significant financial deficit from which the school ultimately could not recover,” the university statement read.
By the time HIM By HER entered its third year, it faced multiple challenges.
Principal Tim Wright resigned in November, after serving only a few months. In December, Harry Dunn reported that six staff members had submitted their resignation, in part because the school would no longer offer health insurance in January, according to minutes from the school’s Dec. 9 board meeting.
The building’s owner also sought to triple the rent, Dunn reported.
Even so, maintenance remained a problem.
“There continue to be HVAC problems and issues in the building revealed that require considerable attention and expenditures,” minutes from the Dec. 9 school board meeting state.
The board decided on Dec. 16 to close the school in five weeks, on Jan. 20. It informed parents in a letter dated Dec. 27.
Critics call for charter school moratorium
All HIM By HER students have been placed in other schools, the school said in a press release on Jan. 20.
“While the School continues winding up activities, it wishes to express profound gratitude for all the families that supported HBHF, all the dedicated employees who helped make HBHCSA a unique school as part of a larger community development center, all the many strategic partners that helped HBHF to carry out its mission, and the public at large in supporting our efforts to begin to interrupt the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” the school said in the statement.
The closure of the fledgling charter school is nothing new to Martindale-Brightwood, a predominantly Black community where dozens of schools have closed across generations.
Schools 71 and 73 closed in 1981 as Black students were bused to township schools to comply with desegregation orders. Forest Manor Middle School closed in 2007. In 2012, the mayor’s office revoked the charter of the Project School after four years. Kindezi Academy, a charter operator that took over the underperforming Joyce Kilmer School 69, closed last year. And the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence lost its charter from the Indiana Charter School Board in 2019.
The latest closure has stirred up discontent with charter schools.
“Ball State didn’t track the finances, they’re behind two years — why is that?” said Greene of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis. “That’s unacceptable.”
The history of charter school closures led Leavell to use a voucher to place her son at Turning Point, a private Christian school, rather than at a charter school. She didn’t want the same thing to happen to him again.
“It’s taken him a little bit to adjust to the work,” said Leavell, who has found a non-teaching job for herself.
She still feels a connection to her previous students and keeps in touch with some.
“One of them called me yesterday because she was having a breakdown at her new school,” she said. “I had to talk to her, calm her down, tell her it was OK.”
Despite the disruption, Leavell said she enjoyed her time at HIM By HER.
“I just wish HIM By HER could’ve stayed open because there was a lot of good things about the school,” she said. In the end, “the children, they were all sad.”
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.