A start-up charter school operator could be chosen as the new manager of Elder Diggs School 42, a long struggling elementary school set to lose its current manager this summer.
Last month the Indianapolis Public Schools Board voted not to renew a contract with Ignite Achievement Academy to run the northwest-side school due to concerns including low academic performance and high staff turnover during the past four years and half years.
Now the district must decide who will take over the school starting in August. Last week IPS Chief Portfolio Officer Jamie VanDeWalle recommended the board sign an agreement with Liberty Grove Schools as an innovation charter partner. That would give Liberty Grove autonomy within the district and be free from many of the policies and union employment contracts.
The district currently partners with 24 innovation charter schools under similar agreements.
But it’s possible the board could decide to turn School 42 back into a traditionally run district school.
IPS’ potential new charter partner
Liberty Grove Schools received its charter from the city last summer. Morrise Harbour, the Liberty Grove founder and executive director, created the academic model as part of The Mind Trust’s school design fellowship. The intent of the two-year program, run by the influential local education reform group, is for educators to design and pitch grant contracts to restart a failing IPS school, or open a new school with the district.
Ignite Achievement Academy's co-founder Shy-Quon Ely was also part of the Mind Trust program before becoming co-leader at School 42 in July 2017.
Until summer 2020, Harbour was a principal for nearly nine years at Friendship Public Charter Schools’ Chamberlain Campus in Washington, D.C.
“We understand that school serves as an outlet, and in some cases, serves as a necessary resource for families and communities to provide opportunity and access,” Harbour said during a meeting with parents this month. “I understand this because it was my neighborhood school where I was encouraged, motivated and I learned to make those informed decisions. And that’s what we want to do for the Elder Diggs community.”
Harbour would become the principal of School 42’s roughly 350 students if Liberty Grove is chosen to run the school.
Harbour and Liberty Grove founding administrator Milanda Penn designed the school for about 18 months as part of the fellowship program, which means School 42 could be the first school to participate in Liberty Grove’s school model.
At least 30 participants logged onto a virtual meeting recently to hear a presentation about Liberty Grove and ask questions to Harbour and IPS staff members.
In a direct message to all zoom participants, community member Elia James said she was glad the candidates have multiple years of experience. James also criticized the district.
“With all due respect if IPS was doing all that rigorously then we wouldn’t have so many schools failing and so many kids at such low levels,” James said.
Does School 42 need another charter partner?
Harbour said he would build off several programs already implemented at School 42. That includes continuing to help students cultivate and be proud of their identity and history, and increase school accessibility.
“I think the other thing that we kind of center around is making sure that we provide each student with as close to an individualized learning plan as possible,” Harbour said. “And recognizing that every student learns differently, and being able to implement practices and supports from teaching staff, leadership and any supports that we're able to work with via consultants to help us develop strategies to make sure we're meeting the needs of all the learners no matter your learning capabilities.”
School 42 is located in the northwest Riverside neighborhood, which is part of IPS Commissioner Taria Slack’s district.
Slack believes Harbour has a successful resume, but she’s not sure if Liberty Grove’s year and half-long development is enough. She would prefer to work with a charter partner who has applied their model at a school for at least three-to-five years and has data to document progress.
“Looking at the program and seeing that they have not piloted that program anywhere is a concern for me,” Slack said. “So I am more favorable of the district taking the school back.”
Commissioners are expected to take up the fate of School 42 in the next few months. District leaders want to provide parents with enough notice about the impending changes so they can decide which school they want their students to attend.
Slack said she hasn’t decided how she will vote.
“The reason being is that we have capability on our team,” Slack said about district administrators who oversee academics. “But it's a balancing act because we also have to listen to the community and what they want, what their needs are.”
Some community members have said they want a charter school to run School 42, and want the school to focus on initiatives such as financial literacy and rigorous instruction. But Slack said the district is already helping charter schools achieve those goals and said the district has the data to back it up.
“I look at this as a parent,” Slack said. “So I say, would I want a doctor operating on my kid at 18 months versus someone with a track record of experience?”
Last week, some Ignite parents wrote to Slack and other board members that they would prefer School 42 be operated by Liberty Grove rather than become a direct-run IPS school.
School 42’s potential future as a district-run school
If Liberty Grove isn’t selected to run School 42, it’s possible the school would fall back into the hands of IPS. It would become the 13th school in the district’s new “emerging school” turnaround program. That’s for schools with at least three consecutive F’s on the state’s A-F accountability scale, and have scored in the bottom quartile of academic growth scores in the beginning and middle of the prior school year.
IPS chief schools officer Nathalie Henderson said those schools receive extra support, such as professional development for teachers and academic coaches.
As part of the emerging school program, Henderson and chief academic officer Warren Morgan would oversee School 42 in addition to the principal.
Each executive director of an emerging school meets with Henderson twice a month to provide updates on attendance and discipline goals. The school would also join five other IPS schools that have partnered with the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, which provides leadership and coaching development.
Henderson said some of these structures she and Morgan have put in place since they joined the district in 2020, were not implemented while School 42 was previously a district-run school before it transitioned to an innovation charter school in 2017.
The district started its school leadership recruitment in November in anticipation of vacancies in the spring, meaning they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. If School 42 becomes a direct-run school, the role of principal would officially be posted online as the district meets with school and community partners to share how the principal selection process will unfold over a roughly 45-day period, as well as receive feedback.
Goals for next year
Some of the concerns Ignite community members have expressed is the need for more school accessibility, transparency and communication. Whether the school is direct-managed or run by potential charter partner Liberty Grove, Henderson said School 42 families would participate in surveys in order to have a better understanding of how students, staff and parents feel about topics such as racial equity, students’ overall school experience and whether students feel valued in their school environment.
“A year from now, parents at the school would have very tangible, clear knowledge of how their school is performing on all the metrics that are important to them — in terms of achievement of their student, whether or not there is an equitable and fair discipline policy,” Henderson said. “They would know that because of the district pushing of schools sharing that information next year.”