Future of Schools

Indiana has seen a burst of new charter schools since 2011 law

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Tindley Accelerated Schools now has a girls-only middle school that scored well on ISTEP.

The number of charter schools in Indiana has grown rapidly since a 2011 state law passed expanding authority to approve and oversee them to new sponsors, and the acceleration looks likely to continue over the next two years.

Up to 14 charter schools were approved in recent months to open this fall, if they can find buildings and overcome other start-up challenges.

Even coupled with another recent trend toward tougher oversight — four charter schools were closed down this year for poor performance or other problems — the net gain could push the number to 86 charter schools statewide next year.

That is a significant jump: just 49 charter schools were open statewide when the law expanding charter school sponsorship passed four years ago, meaning the potential gain equates to about 75 percent more charter schools.

Starting slow, gaining momentum

The first 10 charter schools opened in Indiana in 2002 after a years-long battle in the Indiana legislature ultimately produced a law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts.

For the first decade after 2002, an average of about five new charter schools opened each year, and schools rarely closed except in a few high-profile cases in which sponsors found they were seriously mismanaged. That was relatively slow growth when compared to neighboring states such as Ohio and Michigan, where far more charter schools opened each year.

But over the past three years, new Indiana charter schools have opened at almost twice the rate of the first decade: an average of about nine new charter schools per year.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office has expanded its stable of charter schools quickly in that time. In 2011, Ballard sponsored 18 charter schools. This year he sponsored 29 charter schools. One of those schools will close and another is converting to a private school.

The city could be sponsoring even more charter schools, but under Ballard and recently-departed Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, the city ramped up accountability and pushed low-scoring charter schools to close or merge with more successful schools.

In all, five mayor-sponsored charter schools that were open in 2011 have ceased operations.

“We focused on replication of things that worked and accountability for those that didn’t,” Kloth said. “We enforced high barriers to entry and true accountability for results.”

The faster pace for opening new charter schools is expected to continue statewide. Besides the 14 planned to open this fall among all nine Indiana sponsors, another seven are approved to open across the state in 2016 and 2017.

New sponsors emerge

Two new forces that are helping to drive the expansion are a direct result of the 2011 law: the Indiana State Charter School Board and three private universities that have become charter school sponsors.

Sponsors grant charter schools the ability to operate, monitor their performance and can close those that fall short of their promises.

Before 2011, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s two primary charter school sponsors, along with a handful of local school districts sponsoring just a few others. The legislature that year created the state charter board with the authority to sponsor new schools, and allowed private universities to sponsor charter schools as well.

While debating the 2011 bill, lawmakers who supported the idea often suggested well-known private universities such as Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. None of them has ever done so.

Instead, the three private colleges that are now active charter school sponsors are less well-known.

Trine University in Angola will oversee five schools next year in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis; Grace College in Winona Lake sponsors a school in Fort Wayne and a school in Dugger; and Calumet College of St. Joseph sponsors one school each in Hammond and Gary.

The state charter board also has aggressively approved new schools since its founding. Nine new charter schools approved by that board opened since 2012.

Closing schools that don’t measure up

One sponsor that has been a major force in Indiana since the dawn of charter schools — Ball State — has closed more schools than it opened over the past three years.

As a result, Ball State will oversee just 29 charter schools this fall — three fewer than it did two years ago.

In part, the university’s tougher approach was driven by deep criticism of Ball State that came in 2011 and 2012 for failing to take action against schools with low scores. Since then, the atmosphere has changed, said Bob Marra, who directs charter schools for Ball State.

In fact, earlier this spring, Marra was invited to speak about high quality charter school sponsoring along with representatives from Ballard’s office at a National Association of Charter School Authorizers event. The group is known as a strong advocate for closing low-scoring schools.

“I don’t think I would have been there if it wasn’t for the work we had done the last couple of years,” Marra said.

Even so, critics of the 2011 expansion of charter school sponsors have argued that the new law paved the way for “sponsor shopping,” a practice where low-scoring schools try to jump to new sponsors before they are shut down.

That has occurred in the last three years.

Three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades — Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis and Charter School of the Dunes in Gary — managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close. Timothy L. Johnson Academy and Imagine Life Science Academy West are now sponsored by Trine University and Charter School of the Dunes by Calumet College.

In some cases, it surprised Ball State to learn schools it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.

A law passed earlier this year aims to rectify that problem. House Bill 1636, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, requires that any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor must alert the current sponsor in writing.

The goal is to ensure that sponsors know when schools they oversee seek either to change to a new sponsor or start another charter school with a different sponsor. But the bill does not prevent a new sponsor from taking on a school in danger of closing.

 NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS IN INDIANA

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office (27 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Christel House DORS West in Indianapolis

Tindley Genesis Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana College Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East in Indianapolis

Marion Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis

New schools for 2016-17:

Global Prep Academy in Indianapolis

Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis

New schools for 2017-18:

A second Herron High School in Indianapolis

Ball State University (28 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Mays Community Academy in Rushville

Indiana State Charter School Board (9 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Carpe Diem Northwest in Indianapolis

Carpe Diem Shadeland in Indianapolis

Early Career Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center in South Bend

Excel Center in Noblesville

New schools for 2016-17:

ACE Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Global Leadership Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

New schools for 2017-18:

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

Trine University (3 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Career Academy Middle School in South Bend

Success Academy Primary School in South Bend

Grace College (1 school sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Dugger Community School in Dugger

Calumet College of St. Joseph (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Evansville Vanderburgh School District (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Daleville School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

Lafayette Public School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.