Future of Schools

Top-rated Indianapolis charter schools more likely to be locally run

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.

When it comes to charter schools in Indianapolis, test scores suggest the locally managed schools outdo those that are part of national networks.

Chalkbeat is publishing short profiles of the top scoring, and lowest scoring, Marion County schools on ISTEP for three types of schools — Indianapolis Public Schools, township schools and charter schools. Check out our past stories on the top-rated IPS schools and here for the lowest-scoring IPS schools.

Just the fact that there are so many locally run charter schools in the city is unusual. In many states, more charters are affiliated with national networks than not. Because several charter schools closed last year, there are only 18 operating this year that reported ISTEP scores for 2014.

(ISTEP scores and grades for the 2014-15 school year are not expected to be released until late this year or early next year.)

But the group rather neatly divides in half — nine that beat their direct competitors by besting the Indianapolis Public School average of 51.6 percent passing and nine that saw at most about half their students pass the state exam. Chalkbeat will publish profiles of the nine schools that rank below the district average next week.

Seven of the top nine, it turns out, are homegrown charter schools. Some are part of high scoring local charter school networks, such as Tindley Accelerated Schools or Christel House Academies, while others are unaffiliated schools serving a neighborhood, such as Paramount School of Excellence or Irvington Community School.

The story is different for the nine schools that rank below the IPS average. For those schools, seven of nine are part of national networks. Just two are locally run charter schools.

Eight of the top nine charter schools also are sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. Only Carpe Diem Meridian charter school is not overseen by the mayor. Its sponsor is the Indiana State Charter School Board.

Charter schools are free public schools run independently from school districts. Each has a local governing board that decides who will manage the school. Those boards report to a sponsor, also sometimes called an authorizer. In Indiana, the legislature has given the state charter board, universities, school districts and the Indianapolis mayor the authority to be sponsors.

Sponsors have the authority to decide when charter schools can open, monitor their progress toward and hold them accountable for their performance, which can include shutting them down.

Many charter schools focus on students who come to school with barriers to learning. For example, several have large numbers of students that come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually. Some have large numbers of students in special education or who are learning English as a new language, two challenges that can make it harder for a school to earn a high passing rate.

Here’s a look at the highest-scoring Indianapolis charter schools:

Tindley Collegiate Academy

Tindley Collegiate Academy, on the northeast side of Indianapolis, is the top performing charter school in Indianapolis and the second highest scoring charter school in the state behind only Discovery Charter School in Porter, near Gary.

Tindley Accelerated Schools now has a girls-only middle school that scored well on ISTEP.
PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Tindley Accelerated Schools now has a girls-only middle school that was the top scoring Indianapolis charter school on ISTEP.

In 2014, 84.8 percent passed ISTEP at this all-girls middle school, which opened in 2013. It earned an A in the first year it was eligible for a state A-to-F grade. The school is part of the Tindely Accelerated Schools network.

Tindley Collegiate has unusually extreme demographics even for an inner-city school. It is very racially isolated — 95 percent of the 343 students in grades 5 to 8 are black. All of the students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

It’s unusual to see a school with such high percentages at all and very rare for a school with so many poor children to score 10 points above the state average of 74 percent passing ISTEP.

But also unusual about Tindley Collegiate is that it has no English-language learners in a city with a large Hispanic population. In the Indianapolis Public School District, in which it is located, nearly a quarter of students are still learning English as a new language.

About 13 percent of the school’s students are in special education classes.

Paramount School of Excellence

Paramount School of Excellence is probably best known for its deep community roots in its East Side neighborhood and for its urban farm, where students grow fruits and vegetables and raise animals.

Paramount School of Excellence has made big gains on ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Paramount School of Excellence has made big gains on ISTEP.

But the school’s academic reputation is rapidly growing, too. With a 15-percentage point jump in its ISTEP passing rate in 2014 over the prior year, Paramount became one of just three Indianapolis charter schools that are above the state average and vaulted its grade to an A from a D. But the big jump was not a terrible surprise, as the school’s 78.9 percent passing rate had been on the rise for three years.

Paramount is a large school, with about 615 students in grades K to 8. It’s very diverse: 46 percent of kids are black, 29 percent are white, 13 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are multiracial. About 90 percent of the students are from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, considerably higher than the IPS district average of 76 percent.

The school has fewer kids, however, who are learning English as a new language or in special education than the typical IPS school, at 6 percent and 16 percent, respectively. The IPS averages are 16 percent English-language learners and 18 percent in special education.

The school is locally managed and not part of any network.

Tindley Preparatory Academy

Another high-performing school in the Tindley Accelerated Schools network is Tindley Preparatory Academy, an all-boys middle school that opened in 2012.

TIndley Prep is an all-boys middle school.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
TIndley Prep is an all-boys middle school.

Its 75.6 ISTEP percent passing rate makes it one of just three Indianapolis charter school that scored above the state average, earning the school its second consecutive A-rating even though its passing rate actually slipped a bit from the 79 percent who passed the prior year.

Serving 301 students in grades 5 to 8 on the northeast side, Tindley Prep looks much like its all-girls sister middle school, top-ranked Tindley Collegiate Academy, when it comes to demographics. It is also very racially isolated, with 93 percent black students, and all of its students also come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

Like Tindley Collegiate, there are very few English-language learners — less than 1 percent. About 18 percent of the school’s students are in special education.

Avondale Meadows Academy

Formerly known as the Challenge Foundation Academy, it is one of the oldest charter schools in the city and has seen a six strong years of ISTEP passing rate gains. At 72.5 percent, the school nearly equaled the state average in 2014 thanks to an 8 percentage point gain over the prior year.

Avondale Meadows has seen six straight years of strong ISTEP gains.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Avondale Meadows has seen six straight years of strong ISTEP gains.

Avondale Meadows serves about 480 students in grades K to 5 in the same northeast side neighborhood that is home to several of the Tindley schools. It’s sister school, Vision Academy, opened last year just north of downtown.

When it comes to serving poor children, Avondale Meadows is in line with the typical IPS school — about 75 percent of its children come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 14 percent of its students are in special education. Like the other schools in its neighborhood, Avondale Meadows enrolls few English-language learners. In fact, last year it didn’t have any.

The school is locally run and no longer affiliated with the Challenge Foundation charter school network.

Irvington Community School

A large school of more than 1,000 students east of downtown, Irvington Community School is another of the city’s oldest and most well-known charter schools. With 72.5 percent passing ISTEP, the school was just below the state average and a small step back from the prior year, earning a B-grade in 2014.

Irvington Community School is one of the city's oldest charter schools.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Irvington Community School is one of the city’s oldest charter schools.

It was the sixth straight year the school hovered around the state average when it comes to passing ISTEP. Its passing rate has bounced up and down between a low of 65 percent and a high of 75 percent in that period.

The school is unusual among both charter schools and when compared to IPS averages, in that it has more white children and somewhat wealthier students than most. About 72 percent of students are white, 11 percent are black and 8 percent are Hispanic. About 60 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Very few children are English-language learners — less than 2 percent. About 14 percent of the school’s students are in special education.

The schools is locally managed and overseen by a board of community leaders.

Christel House Academy South

The original Christel House Academy school has long been among the highest scoring charter schools on ISTEP and saw about 71 percent pass in 2014.

Christel House Academy South saw its ISTEP scores rebound in 2014.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy South saw its ISTEP scores rebound in 2014.

That was big jump over the prior year, when 62 percent passed. It was the only time in the prior four years the school’s passing rate had been under 70 percent, and school officials blamed widespread testing glitches with the online exam.

Christel House Academy South (a sister school, Christel House Academy West, opened last year) also was mired in a broad controversy the past two years about A-to-F grading for schools that serve both elementary and high school grades. It had been rated an A for several years but dropped to an F in 2013 after the grading system changed. In 2014, the Indiana State Board of Education stepped in to raise the school’s grade to a B along with other schools with unusual grade configurations, arguing the A to F system unfairly handicapped them for their unique designs.

The school serves a very high-poverty population. About 92 percent of its students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. A large 25 percent of its students are also still learning English as a new language.

The school is about 40 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white and 16 percent black. About 12 percent of students are in special education.

The school is part of a worldwide network of schools run by Indianapolis philanthropist Christel DeHaan.

Carpe Diem – Meridian Campus

When Carpe Diem’s Merdian Campus opened in 2013, it was one of the first schools in the city to use “blended learning” as a primary strategy.

Carpe Diem Meridian Charter School emphasizes "blended learning."
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carpe Diem Meridian Charter School emphasizes “blended learning.”

Located on the north side of downtown, the school has 225 students but fewer than 10 teachers. Students learn many of their lessons on computers and then follow up with teachers for extra help or to work together with other students on group projects.

In its first year, Carpe Diem equaled the state average with 73 percent passing ISTEP, but the passing rate slipped in 2014 to 62.7 percent. The slide meant the school earned a D for its first grade despite the initially strong test scores.

The school has since opened two new campuses — Carpe Diem Northwest and Carpe Diem Shadeland, which have not yet reported ISTEP scores or earned a grade.

Carpe Diem Meridian has fewer poor students than a typical IPS school. About 62 percent come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 61 percent of its students are black, 28 percent are white and 4 percent are Hispanic.

About 20 percent of the school’s students are in special education, which is more than a typical IPS school, but it has no English-language learners.

The school is part of a national network of charter schools run by an Arizona-based company.

Indiana Math and Science Academy North

After three straight years of growth when it came to passing ISTEP, Indiana Math and Science Academy North saw its score slip in 2014, knocking the school down to a B from an A the prior year.

The Indiana Math and Science Academy North is one of three schools that are part of the ISMA network.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The Indiana Math and Science Academy North is one of three schools that are part of the ISMA network.

Its 60.7 percent passing rate in 2014 was down from 67 percent the year before, but the school has earned an A or B for four straight years.

IMSA North, located on the northeast side of the city, is a K-12 school with about 760 students. It serves a high-poverty population, with 93 percent of its students coming from families that qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

The school is 75 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 8 percent white. About 6 percent of students are English-language learners, and about 14 percent are in special education.

The school is run by Concept Schools, an Illinois-based charter school management company with schools in five states.

Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence

Another of the city’s oldest charter schools, SENSE has struggled through a tumultuous five years with leadership changes and other difficulties, but it has maintained slow, steady growth for the percent of students passing ISTEP.

The SENSE charter school in Fountain Square has posted ISTEP gains recently after a few years of struggles.
The SENSE charter school in Fountain Square has posted ISTEP gains recently after a few years of struggles.

In 2014, 55.7 percent passed, a six-point gain over the prior year and the fifth straight year the school improved its scores. It helped the school earn a B-grade, the first time it has earned better than a C in a decade.

With about 480 students in grades K to 8, the school is located in the Fountain Square neighborhood just south of downtown. It serves a very high-poverty population, with 95 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is 56 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic and 8 percent black. About 13 percent are English-language learners, and 17 percent are in special education.

The school was originally launched by the Southeast Neighborhood Development organization.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”