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.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.


New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.