May 9, 2024

Messy breakup at Indianapolis charter school tees up fight over students, teachers

Andrew J. Brown Academy, one of the city's oldest charter schools, could face a struggle to survive if Creek Point Academy opens in its current space. - Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat

Andrew J. Brown Academy, one of the city's oldest charter schools, could face a struggle to survive if Creek Point Academy opens in its current space.

Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat

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A charter school is squaring off against its operator in what could turn into a fight over students and staff on the Far Eastside of Indianapolis.

The for-profit operator National Heritage Academies (NHA) is seeking to run Creek Point Academy, a charter school that — if approved by the Indiana Charter School Board — would open in the building that’s currently occupied by Andrew J. Brown Academy.

Meanwhile, Andrew J. Brown has cut ties with NHA in favor of a local nonprofit, and plans to move to a new building in the fall if ongoing attempts to lease the building from NHA fail.

But Andrew J. Brown’s staff are NHA employees, and NHA owns the building that’s currently home to Andrew J. Brown. That could give Creek Point Academy a leg up and simultaneously hamper the charter school named after a local civil rights leader.

The face-off is exacerbating the acrimonious split between NHA and Andrew J. Brown’s school board. The board dropped NHA as the school’s operator amid increasing scrutiny of NHA from the school’s authorizer, the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation. The dispute also underscores how shifting relationships between local charter schools and the groups responsible for them can affect students in different ways.

Charter school boards that oversee their schools can tap operators to run schools on a day-to-day basis. Authorizers provide accountability for the school board and determine whether to renew a school.

Richard Hailey, the chair of Andrew J. Brown’s board, said NHA’s application to open Creek Point represents an attempt to “cannibalize” the existing school. Andrew J. Brown’s board has offered to lease the building from NHA, which has rejected these offers, he said.

“This is hardball,” he said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “This isn’t playing polite.”

NHA said in a statement that the idea that Creek Point and Andrew J. Brown are competing for students does not pass muster, and that children win when there are more successful schools operating.

“While we hope families and staff continue to choose NHA, it is disappointing that the AJB board would want to make that decision for these stakeholders,” NHA said.

Over a dozen current NHA-employed Andrew J. Brown staff members and families spoke in support of Creek Point at a public hearing last week. They argued that keeping a school open in the current facility would provide stability for students.

Terri McLucas, a staff member whose step-children attended the NHA-operated Andrew J. Brown, likened the divide to her own parent’s divorce.

“We’re fighting over the kids,” she said at the public hearing. “And who gets hurt are the children. The adults, y’all gonna be alright. But it’s these babies that come in this building every day looking for us to be there.”

The Indiana Charter School Board’s staff will make a recommendation on whether to approve the authorization of Creek Point ahead of the board’s May 21 meeting. The board, however, rarely approves schools to open in the same year that they apply.

Charter school operator’s management practices scrutinized

Creek Point Academy, which would be a nonprofit, would pay $800,000 to lease the building annually from NHA, according to Creek Point’s application.

That cost, which Hailey said was about the same for Andrew J. Brown, is one of several concerns Andrew J. Brown’s board has highlighted about its partnership with NHA.

Since March 2022, the Office of Education Innovation has twice put the school on notice for deficiencies, including for an Indiana Department of Education investigation that found violations of state special education requirements.

The state later closed the file on the school after the school took corrective action.

Hailey has also expressed concerns about NHA related to financial transparency, staff turnover, academic performance, and a lack of local control.

But Lindsay Lux, president of the Creek Point nonprofit’s founding group, said the board will hold NHA accountable. The board will also be able to select an auditing firm to examine academic and financial practices, she said.

“You don’t have a for-profit business that operates for 30-plus years with 65,000 students if you’re not doing something right,” said Lux, who previously worked with NHA as a consultant.

Andrew J. Brown’s board has also questioned NHA’s ability to boost academic improvement.

As an NHA-operated school, its proficiency rate in math on the 2023 ILEARN exam was 22%, a slight increase from 2022, while the English proficiency rate remained about the same at 21%. These rates were higher than results of many nearby schools, according to Creek Point’s application.

Proficiency rates for the third grade IREAD test, however, dropped from 63.2% in 2022 to 46.8% in 2023.

At the hearing, staff expressed indifference about NHA’s for-profit status, which has also been a point of contention.

Renae Bosserman, a social worker at Andrew J. Brown, said she has received supplies that she said she would have never been able to afford in a traditional public school system.

“Just because you may be a for-profit school, please know we love and care about our babies,” she said.

In a Thursday letter, the Office of Education Innovation urged the Indiana Charter School Board to reject Creek Point’s application.

In addition to concerns about academic performance, OEI director Patrick McAlister also argued that NHA’s funding model leaves unclear how much state funding directly benefits students.

“Coupled with enrollment declines and principal turnover, it’s not clear NHA’s practices prioritize local students and staff over its bottom line,” McAlister wrote.

Andrew J. Brown will offer jobs to classroom faculty

Meanwhile, Andrew J. Brown’s board is trying to assure families and staff that it will continue operating in the city’s northeast side.

The board has secured an alternative facility if negotiations to lease the building from NHA ultimately fail, Hailey said, but is not prepared to make the location public.

A local nonprofit organization, Paramount Schools of Excellence, will manage the school instead of NHA.

The board plans to offer jobs to current classroom faculty but will replace the school’s administration. It will also host two forums, one for parents and one for staff, later this month to explain its plans.

This story has been updated to include comments from National Heritage Academies.

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Lawrence Township schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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