June 1, 2016

State Ed Board OKs Change In Authorizer For Troubled Gary Charter School

Thea Bowman Leadership Academy's high school campus in Gary.

Thea Bowman Leadership Academy's high school campus in Gary.

Members of the Indiana board of education say leaders of Thea Bowman Academy followed all the state requirements to seek a new sponsor and were not “authorizer shopping” as they fought to stay open beyond this month.

The board voted Wednesday to approve an authorizer associated with a private university to be the new sponsor of the Gary school.

“We walked out with great joy,” tweeted Eve Gomez, a member of the the Drexel Foundation for Educational Excellence Inc., the body that holds Thea Bowman’s charter and oversees the two schools.

But until recently the future of Thea Bowman, one of the state’s oldest charter schools, seemed uncertain.

In January Ball State University declined to renew its sponsorship after 13 years because of ongoing failures by the school's governing board, such as compliance issues with federal funding, disregarding open door law and creating a “climate of distrust and uncertainty” at the schools.

Ball State also raised concern with a slide in academics. In 2010 the two-school network was rated a C, in the past three years its been graded a D on the state’s A-F accountability scale. Around 1,300 students are enrolled in the elementary and high schools.

In the following months, all members of the Drexel Foundation board resigned and new members were appointed, including Gomez and former State Board of Education member Tony Walker.

The new board then sought a charter from the Indiana Charter School Board.

The board staff supported the application and recommended that the full board approve it. Instead,  ICSB members voted 5-2 to deny the request, citing concerns over the new governing board’s capacity to oversee the schools.

Last month Trine University’s EducationOne approved a new charter for Thea Bowman. The authorizer oversees four schools, not including Thea Bowman. Three schools have been closed. 

Lindsay Omlor, of Trine, said the Drexel Foundation will have three years to correct all of their management issues.

“At the end of three years we will go through renewal and determine whether or not we are satisfied with their status and their progress,” she said. “We would not be satisfied if they had not made these changes.”

Omlor said she expects Indianapolis-based Phalen Leadership Academy to help Thea Bowman increase quality of teachers and follow state and federal policies. Phalen has partnered with the Thea Bowman to manage the daily operations at the schools.

But board member Vince Bertram said he thinks the school should address its problems quicker than three years.

“My question is why wouldn’t we give a one year timeline with clear benchmarks,” he asked.

Questions have swirled whether the Drexel Foundation was “authorizing shopping” after failing to meet Ball State’s requirements. This came just as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has praised Indiana’s charter accountability policies as best in the nation

A 2013 law sought to prevent troubled charter schools from switching sponsors to escape accountability by requiring the State Board of Education to give final approval to a change in sponsor.

Board member Gordon Hendry said the law was intended to increase accountability of charter schools.

“I think this is part of the process. There have been some issue with the school. They appear to be very much addressed. There is new board governance," he said. "We are not reducing accountability should this board approve the new authorizer.”

The board did just that -- voting 10-0 Wednesday to approve Trine’s new charter with the school. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz recused herself from the vote.

Taryl Bonds, a Thea Bowman parent, attempted to create a new board that would have taken control of the school from the Drexel Foundation. But after the approval from Trine, he told WFYI last week that he and other families will support the new board and authorizer.

“We positioned ourselves as an alternative in the event Drexel was unable to get a charter.  Our motive was, is and always will be what's best for the children,” he said. “And we look forward to working with them and having a successful upcoming school year.”

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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