Three Indianapolis schools under state takeover will return to their home district after the State Board of Education reversed a decision and denied a private manager's intent to seek charter authorization for the schools.
The unprecedented move, described by one board member as "difficult, messy and not clean," effectively ends state control of schools in the city. It also divides members of Southside and Eastside neighborhoods, who want different outcomes for the schools.
Indianapolis Public Schools is now free to decide the schools' futures for the first time in nearly eight years. The Florida-based Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), who was hired by the state in 2012 to turn around the schools, will be forced to end its involvement in June.
Wednesday's vote came after last month's surprise decision by another state agency to reject CSUSA's intent to make the schools into charter schools. Last year, the State Board of Education ordered CSUSA to apply for charters, after a series of public meetings found support for that option.
But in the past two months, IPS leaders began a fast-paced campaign to win the schools back by publicly criticizing CSUSA and promoting alternative plans for Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools
At Wednesday's meeting, IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson detailed a timeline, such as closing Howe this summer and partnering with a local charter operator to move into Manual.
“We are the only organization coming to you today with an explicit plan that can definitively be executed upon that we believe will serve students well," she told the board.
In opposition to the IPS plan, Sherry Hage, CEO of the non-profit Noble Education Initiative, that manages the schools for CSUSA, told the board she is "confident" the private Trine University, another authorizer will grant them charters in April.
"CSUSA and NEI have held true to what was committed to back 2012 -- no more failing schools," Hage said, noting the three schools are no longer rated as failures by the state.
Board members seemed concerned about the IPS plan to close Howe High School but more worried that Hage's second-attempt for a charter is not guaranteed.
State Board member Peter Miller says the takeover process has come to its end and was not a failure. In 2011 the board approved the takeover of these and two other schools after six consecutive years of documented academic failure.
“It worked as intended. The vote today was not a repudiation of any of the work done by the turnaround operator," Miller said of CSUSA and NEI. "They did what they were asked to do and the end of the contract is here.”
At the same meeting, the board unanimously voted to end the takeover of Gary's Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy.
The State Board of Education oversaw the work of CSUSA and supported it by approving $21.9 million in federal school improvement funds. WFYI previously reported, despite the extra support, that CSUSA spent more than $5 million of its own private money to keep the three schools operating because state funding based on enrollment was not enough.
In the end, State Board of Education members said little when they voted 6-2 in favor of IPS retaking control of the schools this summer. Kathleen Mote and Kristin Rentschler voted against the motion. Three members did not vote: David Freitas was absent; Byron Ernest recused himself because he works for Noble Education Initiative; and Tony Walker abstained from the vote due to a conflict related to his job as an attorney.
State board staff did not issue a recommendation on how the board should vote, a process often used for policy issues. But Ron Sandlin, the board's senior director of school performance, briefly told the board of changes since the March 2019 decision for CSUSA to seek charters for the three schools.
Sandlin said those changes include Johnson's appointment as IPS superintendent and the district's announcement it would not close Manual High School if it was returned to the district. He also mentioned the investigation by Chalkbeat that found an unusually high number of students exiting Manual to be homeschooled, rather than counted as dropouts.
More than 120 people crammed into a room at the Indiana State Library for the meeting. Some held signs that said "No IPS!" or wore similar black T-shirts. More than 40 people gave public comment before the vote.
Students fought back tears as they described loving teachers at Howe or how they were positively impacted by opportunities at Manual. Neighborhood groups and local organizations argued IPS would offer a more stable future for the schools and the use of the buildings.
And some school staff and families talked about the failures of Howe and Manual when IPS ran the schools before 2012. They fear the chaos and negative culture will return,
Johnson said she understood the upheaval returning the schools to the district would cause but felt it was best for the students.
"We have to earn trust, that is the bottom line. It has to be earned, not given," Johnson said. "We don't take it lightly… At the end of the day we are working with partners and have support from the community to create a strong environment for students."
The State Board's vote for IPS paves the way for the district's plan:
- Christel House Indianapolis will relocate its K-12 school and adult high school near Garfield Park a few blocks north to the Manual campus this summer. Current Manual students can remain at the school and graduate with a Manual diploma. The school will also retain the Manual name.
- Howe High School will close this summer. A committee will take about a year to “reimagine” what should happen to the campus after the 2020-21 year. Making the space into an athletic complex, a hub for wraparound services or even a new school are possibilities.
- Next month, the IPS School Board will pick an innovation partner to run Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School for the 2020-21 school year. Phalen Leadership Academy and the Adelante Schools are the possible managers.
Johnson, the IPS superintendent, said in a statement that the district will focus on upcoming family and community meetings for all three schools.
After Wednesday's meeting, representatives for CSUSA and Noble Education Initiative declined to speak with the media. Later Hage released a statement, saying she would review "options" for the schools, in wake of the vote.
"It is heartbreaking that the most vulnerable students in Indianapolis lost today. This decision marks an unprecedented move backward for the most at-risk children in Indianapolis," she said. "Although IPS has given up on these kids multiple times, we will review our options and never give up on serving our students, giving them the hope and encouragement for success they so desperately need."
Two years ago Noble Education Initiative was subcontracted by CSUSA to manage the 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 Jon Hage. Other NEI employees also formerly worked for CSUSA.