December 2, 2019

Teachers Defend Emma Donnan As IPS Tries To Retake Control Of School

IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson listens to Jamie VanDeWalle, the district's innovation school manager, during a meeting at Tube Factory on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. - By Eric Weddle/WFYI News

IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson listens to Jamie VanDeWalle, the district's innovation school manager, during a meeting at Tube Factory on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.

By Eric Weddle/WFYI News

Updated Dec. 2, 2019 at 9:20 p.m.

None of the parents of more than 400 Emma Donnan Elementary students attended a public meeting Monday evening organized by Indianapolis Public Schools about the southside school's future.

Instead, the principal and two teachers were there and they defended the school and the private company running it.

"Look at our test data. They don't want to talk about that. It is going up," said Angie Hood, a second grade Emma Donnan teacher, referring to IPS leaders. "They only want to tell you what is negative about us, not what is positive."

The meeting comes in the wake of the Indianapolis Public Schools Board’s sudden decision last month to end its "innovation network" partnership with the for-profit Florida company Charter Schools USA, or CSUSA, to operate the K-6 school. District officials cited concerns about teacher turnover and declining enrollment at the school among their reasons to not renew a five-year agreement.

IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson repeated those concerns at the meeting Monday held at Tube Factory in Garfield Park. The district billed the event as a way for families to give input on the school's future.

"I will never argue or contest there are hardworking teachers serving students in classrooms every day," Johnson said in response to Hood. “But our concern is we look forward and not backward with a 10 percent teacher retention rate and declining enrollment. Those are not signs that led us to believe that is a strong future ahead (at Emma Donnan).”

Johnson says Emma Donnan will not close when the CSUSA partnership ends in June. She says local charter operators Phalen Leadership Academy and an upstart -- Adelante Schools -- are interested in running Donnan starting in the 2020-21 school year.

A decision on who would manage Emma Donna could be made by March, Johnson said.

Yet, it remains to be seen if IPS will even gain control of Emma Donnan next year. That decision will play out, at least, during the next two weeks.

The State Board of Education will weigh in on the matter Wednesday.

The partnership between CSUSA and IPS to open Emma Donnan Elementary School started in 2015. CSUSA also operates Emma Donnan Middle School and two other former IPS schools as part of a state-mandated takeover. After years of chronic academic failure under the district, the state hired CSUSA, despite IPS opposition, in 2012 to turnaround the three schools.

In 2017, CSUSA contracted Noble Education Initiative to manage Emma Donnan and the other two 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 John Hage. Other NEI employees also formerly worked for CSUSA, including State Board of Education member Byron Ernest.

In March, the State Board of Education approved a recommendation for CSUSA to seek charters to operate each of the three schools as independent public charter schools when the takeover ends after eight years in June. The board decided not to return the schools to IPS.

But the IPS Board’s decision to end the partnership with CSUSA has the potential to derail the charter application process for all the schools.

The State Board of Education’s order for CSUSA to apply for a charter for Emma Donnan Middle School required IPS to renew the partnership. In response to IPS Board’s cutting ties with CSUSA, the state board’s staff reviewed the earlier recommendation and wrote a new resolution.

The resolution reiterates the board's vote in March, it calls on CSUSA to seek a charter for Emma Donnan. The 11-member State Board of Education will vote on whether to approve the resolution Wednesday.

Additionally, Johnson says IPS will ask the board Wednesday to “place all grade levels” of Emma Donnan under district control. 

ReThink Forward Indiana, a nonprofit board based in Florida and associated with NEI, applied to the State Charter School Board to operate Emma Donnan, as a K-8 school, and the two other schools in a takeover: Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools. The board is set to vote Dec. 13 whether to approve a charter for each school.

But IPS wants the charters for the high schools denied too. Johnson, in an Indy Star editorial published Sunday, cited concerns about possible inflated graduation rates at the schools, and ReThink Forward Indiana’s assertation that state law allows it to buy or lease the three school buildings for $1 each.

“I will not accept putting Indianapolis Public Schools in a precarious financial circumstance that we are currently working diligently to address,” Johnson said in the editorial. “We know and understand deeply that schools are such valuable parts of our community and, if returned to our IPS family, we would explore all viable opportunities for these schools and their students.”

Johnson has said the district could be saddled with expenses related to the Howe and Manual, such as paying off bonds, even if the buildings are leased or purchased under the state law. 

Last month in an email to WFYI, CSUSA spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds decried the action of IPS to end the Emman Donnan contract.

“IPS clearly has decided that parents do not deserve high-quality educational options while their own schools are in decline. It’s no wonder they want to bring back high performing students and they are willing to disrupt students’ and teachers’ lives for political gain,” she said.

Reynolds also said the company expects for the charters will be granted to opreate the three schools.

Last year Emma Donnan Middle School earned a C rating on the state’s A-F scale for the first time in nearly a dozen years of F grades.

The Emma Donnan K-6 School was rated an A -- based on student's academic growth only -- last year. Yet, last month Johnson said data shows the partnership is not working out.

Some of her concerns: enrollment decline from 631 students in 2016-17 to around 435 students this year and just 10 percent of teachers were retained across the past three years.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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