In 2017 Indianapolis Public Schools and education advocates put their weight behind a brand new charter operator, Ignite Achievement Academy, to restart a long-failing westside school.
Thursday the IPS school board of commissioners voted unanimously not to renew the contract for Ignite to operate the school due to multiple factors, including instability among teachers, low academic performance and deficiencies in compliance with special education requirements.
IPS Board of Commissioners President Evan Hawkins said he can’t imagine how challenging these circumstances are for Ignite students and families, but the district must hold schools accountable for providing a rigorous and supportive learning environment.
“We recognize that this is a challenging recommendation, that no one sits around here and approaches it in a flippant way,” Hawkins said. “We understand this impacts communities, this impacts children, this impacts adults and this impacts learning outcomes for young people.”
Ignite has recently announced that it plans to pursue legal action in order to protect the school. IPS declined to comment on a potential lawsuit.
Ignite will continue to run the K-6 elementary school for the remainder of the academic year. The district plans to host community meetings with families as it determines who will run the school for the 2021-22 academic year — the district or another charter school partner.
Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs School 42 has stood out among others in the city for also incorporating social-emotional neuroscientific research practices, and alternative physical education methods, such as karate. The school is located in the northwest Riverside neighborhood and prides itself for providing an Afrocentrism curriculum to the area’s predominantly low-income families.
Ignite parents and guardians say some of the 350 students arrive at school not ready to learn due to complex factors in their personal lives, such as trauma. But parents said Ignite’s educators help students learn emotional skills to deal with their trauma, such as redirecting their anger and meditation.
Michelle Brown-Johnson said her son is an honor roll student with top test scores. At a recent district-led community meeting for Ignite families, she came to “fight for this school” because of the work they are doing, even though this is her son’s last year before heading to middle school.
"This school has done a lot,” Brown-Johnson said. “And if you ask me, they're not being recognized for what they have done. But they are being criticized and beat up for what everyone feels that they didn't do."
But the district said the school’s performance data just isn’t there.
Low performance, enrollment and staff retention
Four years ago, Ignite was picked by IPS to restart School 42 to avoid state intervention. The school had been graded an F by the state for the previous five consecutive years, triggering a process that could have led to the district losing control of it.
The district signed an agreement with Ignite to make it an innovation partner — district schools operated autonomously by charter organizations and nonprofit school managers. The contract allows the IPS school board authority to end, or not renew, the partnership. The mayor's Office of Education Innovation granted a charter to Ignite. Teachers at innovation charter schools are not part of the district's union contract.
Ignite began operating the school in the 2017-2018 school year with backing from education reform group, The Mind Trust. During that time, student academic proficiency levels were already well below the district’s average. But those numbers have only gotten worse, according to district data.
In 2020-2021, the average math proficiency rates for all IPS schools were just above 10 percent, while Ignite’s trend around 4 percent. In English Language Arts, most IPS schools are just above 15 percent, while Ignite is still below 4 percent.
Jamie VanDeWalle, IPS’ chief portfolio officer, said the comparative data was an important factor when deciding not to recommend the partnership for renewal.
“When you look at that trend line, not just for the last two years but back all the way to 2017, and you can see the dip in performance beginning in that year of restart — not just when COVID hit,” VanDeWalle said.
There are other considerations that prevented the district from renewing the partnership.
The school has struggled to attract students over the past few years. Enrollment has dropped from roughly 500 students in the 2017-2018 school year, to just over 350 this school year — that’s nearly 30 percent less students. Staff retention is another district concern, which hasn’t remained steady over the past few years. This year teacher retention plummeted to just below 50 percent — the lowest in the district, and 20 percent lower than the next-lowest school.
District staff, the mayor’s office and a third party evaluator also visited the school for an entire day, and VanDeWalle said the experience was not the same as when they visited in 2018. She said one of the issues that was flagged was that students were not engaging with high quality curricular materials, as well as some concerns regarding compliance and efficacy with special education and English language learner instruction.
“We also witnessed several unproductive interactions between students and their teachers, and then also student to student,” VanDeWalle said. “So the culture in the classroom was not what we would consider conducive for learning.”
Co-founder and Head of School Shy-Quon Ely did not attend the school board meeting. Earlier in the day he told WFYI, the district should have provided more support in the past four years.
“We do not believe IPS has been as supportive as necessary for the restart of Diggs School considering the resources available to the school and elevated needs of the community there through the pandemic,” Ely said in an email to WFYI.
Ely also said successful school turnaround can take five to seven years, and has been difficult for students who have struggled to meet their basic needs of having nutritious food, quality water and safe shelter.
“We are not avoiding accountability but we need to define success. Turnaround work can absolutely be successful given the conditions mentioned above; context is important to the data and we have data that show progress,” Ely said. “Knowledge of this at the grassroots/neighborhood level is one of the reasons you have seen people from the community support our continued work.”
'Both sides failed our babies'
Before the commissioners voted not to renew the contract, EmpowerED Families’ executive director Ontay Johnson said “we don’t need good intentions, we need results.”
“I agree with the decision, the data supports the decision,” Johnson said during public comment. “What I struggle with is the collateral damage that Black and Brown students continue to be in this broken education system. Whether you are an advocate for charter or public schools, both sides failed our babies at this school.”
Eighty percent of students are Black and nearly 10 percent are Hispanic, according to the most recent state data. Nearly all of the students in grades K-6 qualify for free or reduced meals.
Ashley Brand, whose son attends Ignite, said that she’s worried about the academic problems IPS officials shared and she’s frustrated no one told her sooner. She blames the district because the low results existed at the school before the overhaul.
"This problem has been ongoing for years and nobody has done anything about it,” Brand said. “They're not getting the education that the other surrounding schools are giving. These are the kids they are going to be in competition with our colleges and for jobs, and you know, for their lives. And they're being slighted."
Lena Dickerson said the school district hasn’t done enough to support Ignite during the overhaul and help the school improve. As a parent, she felt like she had no voice in the decision to end the partnership, she said.
"Even if they might have to close this, the way y'all going about it is all wrong,” Dickerson said. “And is dis-servicing to the students at the end of the day."
This is the second time the district has not renewed an innovation charter school contract. In November 2019 the district ended its partnership with Charter Schools USA for operation of Emma Donnan Elementary School.
Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.