Indianapolis Public Schools teamed up with a local and powerful charter operator in a last-minute attempt to save one of its former high schools under state takeover from becoming a charter school managed by an organization it opposes.
Christel House Indianapolis is negotiating a deal with IPS to relocate its K-12 school and adult high school near Garfield Park a few blocks north to the Emmerich Manual High School campus. Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is CEO of Christel House International and was the first mayor in the country to authorize charter schools.
“We are part of the fabric of the Southside of Indianapolis," Peterson told the State Board of Education Wednesday about the company's 18-year history in the area. "We think we would be an ideal partner with IPS in building a new future for Manual High School and its campus."
The potential IPS partnership with the local nonprofit comes nine days before the Indiana Charter School Board is set to vote on applications for Manual High School and two other former IPS schools under state takeover: Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe High School.
The schools have been operated by the for-profit Florida-based Charter Schools USA, or CSUSA, since 2012 in a state contract. A nonprofit board linked to the company is seeking charters for each of the schools.
Peterson, who helped found the education reform group The Mind Trust, says the partnership with IPS would only work if the charter for Manual is not approved at a Dec. 13 meeting.
Earlier this year, the State Board of Education ordered CSUSA to apply for charters for each of the schools to take effect when the takeover ends next summer.
IPS leaders opposed the plan in March but remained mostly silent about it until last month. That’s when the IPS School Board did not renew a partnership with CSUSA that the state board required to be intact for a charter application to be submitted for Emma Donnan.
At Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting Michael O'Connor, IPS School Board president, described Donnan's challenges with enrollment and a 10-percent teacher retention rate during the past three years. O'Connor says the district wants “maximum local control” to improve Emma Donnan and “the path to that improvement” includes a partnership with a group other than CSUSA.
IPS says local charter operators Phalen Leadership Academy and an upstart, Adelante Schools, are interested in running Donnan starting in the 2020-21 school year.
Emma Donnan Principal Susan Fries, a former IPS teacher, shot back against the criticism, noting how the school earned a grade of C on the state's A-F accountability scale in 2018 after a decade rated a failure.
"We want to be able to continue on the path we have begun. In order for us to sustain greatness and flourish in the future, it is crucial we continue to embrace and work hard side by with Charter Schools USA and Noble Education Initiative," Fries says.
Board member David Freitas was skeptical of the IPS request to retake control of Emma Donnan now, a year after a task force held five public meetings on the issue.
"We didn't create CSUSA to be the perfect system but they did turn around the school," he says. "It worked. Not one parent or teacher came here to say, 'yes, turn it back to IPS.'"
The board voted 8-1 to allow CSUSA to continue with the charter application process without IPS support. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick was the only no vote.
'Best For Kids'
Jon Hage, the founder and CEO of Charter Schools USA, says he’s heard the rumors of IPS plans to block the charter applications. He says Christel House and IPS are only interested in controlling the buildings for Manual and Emma Donnan.
“This is obviously a last-minute effort by the school district to sort of come in and try a different tact. It appears mostly to be about facilities,” he says. “I don’t think that is what is best for kids -- what we do with facilities”
Hage says he’s never spoken to IPS Superintendent Johnson since she was named interim last year or became district leader this past summer.
“We’d love to be working with IPS more but it takes two. They made a decision politically for whatever reasons. Our position has not changed,” Hage says. “Our focus is to continue on student performance and the schools. Fix problems where we have them.”
One of the CSUSA’s problems discussed at Wednesday’s state board meeting was the unusually high number of students exiting Manual High School to be homeschooled. That may have bolstered the school’s graduation rate, because students leaving for homeschool are not counted against a school's graduation rate, as a dropout student would be.
Hage denied any wrongdoing calling it a “complex issue” driven by state law requirements for how student records are kept by staff when student's exit a school.
“There is no evidence of wrongdoing purposely,” Hage says of the company’s own research into the issue that he would make available. “There is no one purposely trying to benefit from a scam of the system.”
Manual High School Principal Michael Wingert, in public comment to the state board, said some students who left to be homeschooled later enrolled in other schools. No data was available Wednesday to back up that claim.
Manual families and staff who spoke at the board meeting came out against and IPS and Christel House's plan to run the school without its current operator.
Peterson says the Manual name would not be changed and the campus would maintain two separate high schools allowing current students to earn a diploma as Manual graduates.
Hage says he believes the Indiana Charter School Board will approve the three charters next week.
"I think the state will do the right thing, I think the charter commission will do the right thing to reward the hard work of these families and teachers and kids who have done so much," he says.
The nonprofit group ReThink Forward Indiana is applying for the charters to operate Emma Donnan, Howe and Manual high schools.
If the charters are approved, the nonprofit Noble Education Initiative would operate the schools and run instruction. CSUSA hired Noble Education Initiative as a subcontractor in 2017 to run the schools.
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, including State Board of Education member Byron Ernest. Ernest recused himself from Wednesday’s vote.