A charter school affiliated with the private Christian Hillsdale College seeks to open in northwest Indianapolis amid significant backlash after failing to acquire a school building in Carmel.
Valor Classical Academy is now interested in opening in the fall in an office building near I-465 and Michigan Road near the intersection of Pike Township, Washington Township, and Carmel Clay school districts.
Valor is authorized to open in Hamilton County, as originally proposed. State law requires the school’s authorizer, the Grace Schools Charter Authority affiliated with the private Christian Grace College, to hold a public hearing about the new proposed location in Marion County. Valor’s school board president said the site, at 3600 Woodview Trace, is one possibility and that school officials recently toured another location in Hamilton County that may prove a better fit.
Dozens of parents and community members protested at the public hearing on Monday, arguing that the school’s ties to Hillsdale are problematic.
Opponents argued that the school’s curriculum, which includes the Hillsdale 1776 history and civics curriculum, will create an ethnocentric school focused solely on Western culture that will isolate students of color and serve primarily white students.
“It’s clear that Valor’s Hillsdale curriculum will be pushing its own political agenda,” said Metropolitan School District of Pike Township Superintendent Larry Young.
The school’s new proposed location pits a community with strong anti-charter tendencies against a charter school backed by a Christian college that has become central in conservative education ideology.
Supporters of the school said Monday that it would provide quality education for those who do not have faith in traditional schools.
Jackie O’Keefe, a parent who spoke in support of the Valor, objected to opponents who painted the school as a politically conservative force.
“When it comes to education, the word conservative to me lends itself to a focus of academics, math, science, reading, spelling, pencil, and paper,” she said. “Not sitting in front of a screen. Not social justice, not pronouns or sexuality. For our family, a classical education checks all of those boxes.”
Valor seeks to open in Marion County instead of Hamilton County
The Grace Schools Charter Authority authorized the charter of Valor Classical Academy in October. The small private college in Winona Lake, Indiana, authorizes four other charter schools in the state including Seven Oaks Classical School, another Hillsdale-affiliated school.
Valor initially applied to open in the Carmel Clay school district with a plan to buy the district’s now-closed Orchard Park Elementary. State law allows charter schools to purchase unused school buildings for $1.
But Carmel Clay Schools fought against the acquisition, arguing that the building would still be in use. After the state attorney general sided with the school district, Valor sued the district. A Hamilton Superior Court judge in January sided with the school district.
Legislators are considering letting the $1 law lapse in 2025.
Facing a potential dead end in Carmel, Valor filed an addendum to its application to instead pursue a 15-year lease with an option to buy a 70,000-square-foot office building along I-465 and Michigan Road, moving the planned school from Hamilton to Marion County.
In its addendum to the charter application, Valor noted that the planning department has recommended approval of the school’s use.
But the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development said through a spokesperson that the site’s zoning does not permit a school use and Valor would need approval to operate one there.
The school plans to open with 378 students in grades K-6, growing to full capacity in 2029 to 702 students in grades K-12, according to the charter application.
Valor says the new location would enable it to draw students from 10 school districts across multiple counties, serving roughly the same area that the school would have served in its previously proposed location at Orchard Park. The school anticipates attracting “privately-educated students who align with Valor’s mission,” according to the March addendum.
“Hamilton, Marion, Hendricks, and Boone counties are ripe with students who have fled from district public schools to alternate sources of education and many more seeking alternatives,” the school wrote in its March addendum. It notes that families are transporting their children outside their district and paying up to an average $6,000 to $8,000 tuition for a “non-secular, classical” education.
The school would offer what it calls a classical, liberal arts curriculum including Latin, a math curriculum known as Singapore Math, and an emphasis on civics and classical virtues, according to the school’s charter.
The school touts civics-centered education with a classical education philosophy dating back to ancient Greece that is also “grounded in the foundational tenets of our Western heritage.”
Parents oppose Valor, citing Hillsdale College’s role in school
But parents from Pike and Washington Townships expressed strong opposition at the hearing Monday, arguing that Valor’s book list, referred to as the “great books,” did not reflect the culture of Pike Township — which has an overwhelming majority of students of color.
Valor’s website lists books for every grade level, including those by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte. Opponents of the school argued that they did not see themselves or their children of color reflected in the collection of literature.
“My children attend schools led by Black leaders who are intentional in ensuring that they see themselves in the literature and material that they study on a daily basis,” said Pike Township parent Alexandra Hall. “The great books promoted by Valor Classical Academy will alienate, isolate, and demean the rich cultures and traditions that are prominent and celebrated in Pike schools.”
Community members also took exception to Valor’s adoption of the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum for American history and civics, arguing that the project was a conservative reactionary curriculum.
“I know we don’t have to send our kids to Valor,” said Gabriel Bosslet, a Pike Township parent. “But we don’t want this anywhere near us, frankly.”
If it manages to open, Valor would eventually join 23 schools nationwide as a Hillsdale College member school that receives guidance and support from Hillsdale.
Backlash against Hillsdale-affiliated schools has spread after a video surfaced last summer of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn commenting that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
Arnn chaired President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which recommended that states and school districts reject curriculum that “promotes one-sided partisan opinions” and “activist propaganda.” The commission was created after The New York Times published The 1619 Project that reframed America’s historical narrative around slavery, a perspective that Trump criticized as “warped” and “distorted.”
A network of Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools known as American Classical Education encountered strong opposition to its proposal to open schools in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee had urged Hillsdale to open more charter schools using its classical school model.
Proponents of Valor in Indianapolis argued that the school will fill a need in Marion County for a public classical education.
“Wherever this building is going to be, our goal is to invite in a radius from five miles in a circle out to 10 miles anyone who would like an excellent classical education,” said David Wright, Valor’s head of school. “This is different. It’s built on the great books. It’s built on discussion and reflection.”
Others argued that the school would be a higher-quality option than the traditional public schools that serve the area.
“I want to know, since when does respect — all these things, the core values that Valor stands for, since when are those exclusively some sort of right-wing Christian foundation?” said parent Joel Harsin. “Those are such things we should all strive for. Manners, respect — all those things.”
Valor school board President Holly Wilson said after the meeting that the list of books on the school’s website is just a sampling of the literature incorporated at the school. Teachers would also have the freedom to bring in whatever texts align with the curriculum, she said.
She said Hillsdale College’s political activities would not affect the school.
The Grace Schools Charter Authority board may vote on whether to approve the amendment to the school’s charter later this month.
Correction: April 11, 2023: A previous version of this story described Grace College as Valor Classical Academy’s authorizer. The authorizer is the Grace Schools Charter Authority affiliated with Grace College.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.