An end to Indiana’s experiment in the takeover of failing schools could happen Wednesday -- again. For the second time, the State Board of Education will vote on the future of four schools, one in Gary and three in Indianapolis.
The heart of the issue is who can retain control of the schools -- the private companies operating them or the former school districts the schools were severed from.
When the State Board of Education approved the intervention of chronically failing schools in 2011, it wasn’t expected to be a permanent solution. State law was later amended to offer various exit strategies, but those haven't worked as planned.
The private companies, some board members and the local districts are now at a crossroads of what should happen next.
The Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy has been operated by the Florida-based Edison Learning since 2012. Academic results fluctuated over the years.
In 2017, the company signed a joint operating agreement with Gary Community Schools Corp., and with the approval of state education officials.
Faulty heating and other building issues created instability at Roosevelt in recent years, and in March 2019, water pipes burst during a subzero winter storm and caused more than $10 million in damages. That shuttered the school. Roosevelt students now attend class in the Gary Area Career Center, a technical education school run by the Gary school district. That location won’t be available for Roosevelt students after this academic year.
These problems correspond with state standardized test scores falling and a 2019 graduation rate of 49 percent.
Edison Learning leaders say they have plans to repair the Roosevelt building with $25 million in private funds and transform it into a K-12 environmental studies charter school. But State Board of Education member Tony Walker of Gary says he’s had enough. At Wednesday’s board meeting Walker will call for a vote to immediately end intervention, Edison Learning’s involvement, and return Roosevelt to Gary Community Schools.
The Florida-based Charter Schools USA (CSUSA) has managed Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmrich Manual high schools since mid-2012. All were formerly operated by Indianapolis Public Schools.
Donnan and Manual are now graded as C on the state's A-F accountability scale, yet Manual's recent graduation rate is about 57 percent following a state audit. Howe has been graded as F for a dozen years but will receive a higher grade when 2019 A-F scores are made public.
In 2018 the State Board of Education hired a consultant to head a task force and recommend what should happen to the schools when the takeover contract ends in 2020. It recommended CSUSA seek authorization from another board for charters, to operate the three schools as independent public charter schools when intervention ends. The State Board of Education agreed and denied a request by IPS to hold off on the decision.
But last month, CSUSA’s application was denied by the Indiana Charter School Board. The board cited concerns with academics, management and issues related to the debt owed by IPS on the high school buildings.
During this process, IPS leaders quickly drew up plans to position the district to take back the schools. At Wednesday’s meeting, Indianapolis Public Schools will present a formal plan and request control that includes closing Howe High School this summer.
CSUSA could also submit a proposal to the board at that meeting. It has not yet made its plans public, but the three schools’ social media accounts show anti-IPS statements and calls for supporters to attend the meeting.
Colleen Reynolds, the spokesperson for the company, said CSUSA continues to follow the direction board’s March order to pursue charter schools for these schools.
“The State Board direction was guided by the School Transition Task Force that spent months soliciting community feedback about what to do with the schools moving forward. It would be a tragedy for the students and communities of Indiana to lose their best hope at success,” Reynolds said in a statement. “IPS' plan is all about money and profit, not about students' success. It is just not right to take away the hope our students have finally been able to feel.”
The State Board of Education meets 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Indiana State Library, History Room 211.