Leaders at Indianapolis Public Schools say the private company operating three of its former schools under a soon-to-end state intervention is preventing a smooth transition of the schools back to district control by this summer.
IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson says representatives of Florida-based Charter Schools USA (CSUSA) did not respond to repeated requests in the past month for access to the school buildings and for student and staff contact information, to inform them about meetings, enrollment options, and job possibilities.
“We do not actually have student information. So we are waiting on that. Obviously that is a critical piece of information so that we can ensure families are feeling supported during this transition,” Johnson said Tuesday. “That is a place where, I’m personally disappointed, that we haven’t been able to get that information yet. We are making clear our urgency that we feel around that information being given to us, so we can bring families and students alongside.”
IPS wants to speak directly to families because of the multitude of changes planned for Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools. Around 1,700 students are enrolled at the three schools. The district set up a website for updates.
When the schools return to IPS control in July, the 7-12 grade Howe will close and its future use evaluated. Local charter operator Christel House Indianapolis will move its nearby schools on to the Manual campus and begin to phase out Manual High School over the next few years. Another local operator is under consideration to operate Emma Donnan as a K-8 school, starting in the 2020-21 school year.
IPS wants students at the three schools to know their options for next year. Such as, Howe students will be guaranteed enrollment in any of the district’s four traditional high schools.
“Obviously every day that passes is one less day we have to ensure families are aware of what is happening and what their options are and how to navigate this process,” Johnson said, adding that meetings for families have been poorly attended because the district doesn’t have permission to hold them at each of the schools.
Not a single Emma Donnan family member attended an IPS meeting held for the school community at the Tube Factory in December.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, IPS held an enrollment fair for Howe students at a community center a few blocks from the Eastside school but only a handful of students attended. At the same time CSUSA held its own enrollment fair in Howe's media center. It featured virtual, private and other non-IPS schools.
In 2011 the State Board of Education approved Donnan, Howe and Manual for takeover after chronic academic failure under IPS. The state stripped local control of the schools from IPS and hired CSUSA to operate the schools, starting in July 2012, and turn them around.
State officials say the turnaround was successful as Donnan and Manual are no longer rated F by the state. Howe will also earn a higher grade when Indiana’s 2019 A-F school ratings are released.
Last month, the State Board of Education voted to return the three schools to IPS control, blocking CSUSA’s intent to seek charter authorization for each and continue their operation.
At the same meeting, Sherry Hage, CEO of Noble Education Initiative, the nonprofit that manages the schools for CSUSA and opposed IPS regaining control, pledged “our full commitment to the State Board and the communities of the three schools to facilitate a successful transition of those three schools.”
A spokesperson for CSUSA and Noble Education Initiative did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Molly Craft, state education board spokesperson, says the board staff is working with IPS and CSUSA.
“Board staff remains committed to prioritize the best interest of kids and support all parties through this transition,” she said in a statement. “Board staff have reached out to CSUSA on behalf of IPS. CSUSA has responded to our emails and has informed board staff that they are working to fulfill the requests.”
The quality of the relationship between IPS and CSUSA has varied over the past eight years. When the takeovers began in 2012, the district and for-profit company fought bitterly. IPS refused to provide student records, and it helped students at the three takeover schools to enroll instead in district controlled schools. That effort led to hundreds of students unenrolling from each of the schools CSUSA was hired to operate.
In 2015, former IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee forged a relationship with Jon Hage, CSUSA’s CEO. They agreed to partner on creating Emma Donnan Elementary School, a K-6 school that was part of the middle school operated by CSUSA.
In November, the IPS Board voted to end its "innovation network" partnership with CSUSA to operate Emma Donnan K-6. IPS cited the higher teacher turnover rate and governance concerns. Soon after, in an Indy Star editorial, Superintendent Johnson voiced concerns about possible inflated graduation rates at Howe and Manual.
In December, Hage, the CSUSA CEO, said IPS appeared more interested in how the three school buildings were used, rather than the students in them.
“They made a decision politically for whatever reasons,” he said.
At the State Board of Education meeting last month, Peggy Hinckley -- a former IPS Interim Superintendent and now working with Noble Education Initiative -- criticized Johnson’s experience as a leader and questioned her ability to improve struggling schools.
In return, Michael O’Connor, the IPS Board president, called Hinckley “completely out of touch” with the district.
The IPS Board will vote next month on whether to make Adelante Schools the new manager of Emma Donnan. The board already approved a five-year innovation contract for Christel House Indianapolis to operate Manual High School. That charter operator has been in the same southside neighborhood for 18 years.