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.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.