Three schools under state takeover could be returned to former home district Indianapolis Public Schools after a state-appointed board denied a charter application for each school Friday.
The application rejection is a staggering end to nearly eight years of a state-mandated takeover where the schools are managed by a private Florida-based company, Charter Schools USA. The takeover was already set to run out in June 2020, and CSUSA hoped a related organization would be granted charters to oversee the schools when it ended.
Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools were approved for takeover in 2011, after chronic academic failure under IPS. In March, state education officials said the schools were no longer considered failing and ordered CSUSA to seek a charter for each and operate them free of intervention.
But Friday, a majority of the Indiana Charter School Board voted down the individual charter applications for each school, after its staff recommended it grant all three charters. The board voted 3-4 to approve each charter. Two board members were absent from the meeting.
Leslie Dillon, a board member from Gary, said her decision to deny was not about what students accomplished at the schools but the uncertainty of continued success if the schools transitoned out of the intense turnaround model and into charter schools. She also feared approval could negatively impact the finances of IPS.
Dillon urged the community -- some in total support and others vehemently against the applications -- to not divide over this.
“This is not the final say for your babies,” she says of the almost 1,700 children enrolled at the three schools. "You will be blessed for your passion ... Never split your community, it is one of the worst, detrimental things you can do."
Some board members raised concern over the enrollment decrease and high teacher turnover at Emma Donnan. For Manual, some questioned the ability for continuous improvement and the unusually high number of students exiting the school to be homeschooled. Howe's constant state grade of F from the takeover's start through the most recent 2018 rating was another issue raised.
Overall, financial stability was a top worry for the board and its staff in this unprecedented transition from takeover to charter status. As charters, the schools would no longer receive millions in federal funding for turnaround efforts or transportation support from IPS.
The three schools remain under control of the State Board of Education, the policymaking body who initiated the takeover process in August 2011. The board is expected to consider options for the future of the schools beyond June 2020, when intervention ends, at its meeting next month.
IPS leaders say they will ask the board to return all three schools to its control and allow them to forge partnerships with its own chosen outside managers to run Manual and Emma Donnan.
An IPS staff member would not confirm Friday whether Howe would remain open if it be returned to the district.
Yet, it’s possible Charter Schools USA could ask the board to allow applications for the schools to be resubmitted to another charter authorizer as Indiana law allows. Manual Principal Michael Wingert says they will work with the State Board of Education on next steps.
“Their confidence in the success of Manual will continue to be supported and we will update all stakeholders on the next steps for serving the students and families of our community as a school and a family,” he said in a statement posted in the Facebook group for Manual alumni.
‘Doing The Right Work’
The charter board's decision caps years of scrutiny and controversy for CSUSA, the Fort Lauderdale for-profit company hired by Indiana to turn around the schools.
Jon Hage, the company's CEO, told the board how he responded to Indiana's national search in 2011 for partners to drastically improve the state's lowest-performing schools. Since then, he says, political interests have remained opposed to the intervention and his company, and the media scrutinized the progress.
"These schools were not failing just academically, but in every category," he told the board. "When we took over the schools, we were surprised how the facilities had degraded, how the community lost heart and the schools had fallen from their former grace."
The State Board of Education oversaw the work of CSUSA and supported it by approving tens of millions of dollars in federal school improvement funds. WFYI previously reported, despite the extra support, that CSUSA spent more than $5 million of its own private money to keep the three schools operating because state funding based on enrollment was not enough.
"We believe we were doing the right work and continue to believe that today," Hage told the board before it voted.
Donnan and Manual were removed from the state’s failing school list in recent years. Both are rated C now. Howe High School will not be graded F for the first time in more than a dozen years when the state releases school grades next year, CSUSA leaders revealed about the embargoed data.
The State Board of Education ordered CSUSA to seek charters for the three schools at a March meeting. The board could have chosen to return the schools to IPS, but at the time, the former IPS district superintendent and elected school board approved a plan to close Howe and Manual if given the opportunity.
During that same March meeting, then-interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson urged the State Board not to order CSUSA to apply for charters because the district leadership was about to change. Johnson remained publicly quiet on the issue when she was named superintendent in June, until last month.
That's when IPS waged a campaign to regain control of the three schools severed from the district in the takeover. A 2015 partnership to operate Emma Donnan Elementary School with CSUSA was not renewed. Then, Johnson penned an editorial that criticized CSUSA, and alternative plans for Emma Donnan and Manual were released to explain the district’s intention if the charters were denied.
Public support for Johnson and the return of the schools to the district came from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, local neighborhood groups, and state and local policymakers.
But supporters of CSUSA made their voices heard at packed a public hearing and through dozen of letters from students and hundreds of signatures on petitions in favor of the charters.
Emotions were charged for much of the three hours when the Indiana Charter School Board debated the applications Friday. Some supporters began to cry after Emma Donnan became the first school to be rejected.
Wingert, the Manual principal, became choked up as he spoke to the board.
"That's a tough act to follow,” he said of the Donnan vote and before the proposed charter for his school was rejected. “Those Donnan kids are our kids. It's hard for everybody in this room who cares for Donnan, Manual and Howe. We are a family."
After the meeting, IPS and Charter Schools USA officials and others part of the charter applications quickly left the room at the Indiana Government Center South Building. All declined to speak with the media.
ReThink Forward Indiana, a new nonprofit board linked to Charter Schools USA, was created to seek the charters from the Indiana Charter School Board. State law prevents a for-profit organization, like CSUSA, from obtaining charters directly.
The charter applications state a company called Noble Education Initiative would run the day-to-day operations and academic curriculum of each school. If the charters were approved, CSUSA would no longer be involved in the schools.
Two years ago Noble Education Initiative was subcontracted by CSUSA to manage the schools. Noble Education Initiative, or NEI, is a Florida-based nonprofit started by Sherry Hage, the former chief academic officer of CSUSA and wife of CSUSA CEO Jon Hage. Other NEI employees also formerly worked for CSUSA.
"Clearly, we are extremely disappointed in the narrow 3-4 vote today," Misty Ndiritu, State Director for Noble Education Initiative and former Manual principal said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the thousands of educational stakeholders who have routinely articulated they want to stay on the current path of success at each school under our leadership and local partnerships."
IPS leaders say they are ready to move forward with plans to remake the schools, mainly the Southside Manual High School. Christel House Indianapolis is already negotiating a deal with IPS to relocate its K-12 school and adult high school near Garfield Park a few blocks north to the Manual campus.
"Our next steps include moving forward with our partnerships with Christel House Academy South and other entities to operate the schools under our Innovation Network Model," IPS spokeswoman Carrie Black said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting the Indiana State Board of Education with our plan to integrate students from all three schools into the IPS family."
The State Board of Education meets Jan.15, 2020 in Indianapolis.