Charter Schools and K-12 and Education and Education & Workforce Development and Philanthropy

DeHaan's Christel House plots high school, foreign growth

February 23, 2009


Academy aims higher DeHaan's Christel House plots high school, foreign growth

When Stacie Floyd enrolled her daughter Kyli in kindergarten at Christel House Academy, she hoped Kyli would be able to earn a high school diploma there.

Now, six years later, Floyd will get her wish. The academy, a K-8 charter school, launched a campaign this year to raise money for a $5 million high school, with classes starting in the 2010-2011 school year.

"I don't think there are too many good choices of high schools out there," said Floyd, a resident of Perry Township.

In the eyes of Carey Dahncke, the academy's principal, too many parents of the academy's graduates fail to actively search out high school options for their kids. So the students end up in whatever public high school serves their neighborhood.

"What we didn't want them to do was to default back into the general population where there was minimal support," Dahncke said of Christel House's 417 students, nearly 86 percent of whom come from low-income families. "Because [most of] our kids won't make it."

Adding the high school is one of three expansions its parent organization, Indianapolis-based Christel House International, could soon plunge into. Christel House, run by millionaire philanthropist Christel DeHaan, might decide as soon as this month to add second schools in both India and South Africa.

Of the 49 charter schools in Indiana, only 18 offer any high school instruction. Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington, is excited to see one more.

"The promise of charter schools has always really been at the high school level," said Plucker, describing high schools as the worst-performing segment of the U.S. education system. "Just the presence of charters should really help everybody. It's going to force everybody to just go that extra mile."

Charter schools are public schools, receiving $7,000 per student from state tax dollars each year, as well as money from federal programs. However, charter schools are free from many restrictions placed on traditional public schools, and most do not have unionized teachers.

Charters have been controversial, however. This year, the Indiana House of Representatives passed House Bill 1723, which would freeze funding for charter schools—effectively blocking any new schools from starting and preventing existing schools from adding students.

Cheryl Wendling, senior vice president of Christel House International, said the organization is keeping an eye on the legislation but is moving ahead with its plans.

Since Christel House's stated goal is to "break the cycle of poverty," Wendling said, stopping after eighth grade leaves students short of steps key to escaping poverty—like enrolling in college or landing an internship.

"We have such an investment in the kids, both from the emotional side and the financial side," she said. "We're leaving our job unfinished if we don't continue."

Wendling likes the results the academy has achieved so far. In its first year, 2002, barely one in four of its students passed the state's standardized test—the worst performance in the state.

But last year, nearly three out of four academy students, or 72 percent, passed the test, known as ISTEP, or Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress. That number exceeded the pass rate for Indianapolis Public Schools and was slightly below the state average.

Many students at the academy want to stay through high school, if the academy adds one. Plans call for a high school facility adjacent to the academy's existing location at 2717 S. East St.

"Most likely, I would want to go to it," said John Wilson, 12, who came to the academy as a kindergartner and is now in fifth grade. "I'd like to go to school where my [elementary] teachers are still here. I'd like to visit them on my free time."

Expanding again

Christel House Academy was the last of five schools launched by Christel House International from 1999 to 2002. The international schools are in Mexico, Venezuela, South Africa and India.

After taking a breather the past seven years, the organization says it has refined its operations so it can take on more.

"We've streamlined and we've structured," said Joe Schneider, who came on as Christel House's chief financial officer 2-1/2 years ago. Schneider combined his finance and auditing background with DeHaan's experience running Resort Condominiums International to manage Christel House like a for-profit corporation.

"This place is a business, in every sense of the word," said Schneider, who worked as an auditor for Ernst & Young and as chief finance officer for Indianapolis-based Weaver Popcorn Co.

Christel House International has an annual budget of $14 million, about 41 percent of which comes from DeHaan's donations. She has committed to fund the schools' general and administrative expenses "in perpetuity."

The international Christel House schools are funded mostly by private donations. But in Indianapolis, Christel House Academy receives most of its money from state and federal tax dollars.

Christel House International employs fund-raising staff to bring in donations to cover all programs and services at the international schools. They're not raising enough right now, and DeHaan so far has been making up the difference.

Christel House officers acknowledge it's not the easiest thing to raise money on behalf of DeHaan, since it is widely known that she received a windfall when she sold RCI in 1996 for $825 million.

Now, as Christel House tries to raise money for the high school in the midst of a recession, its challenge is even greater.

But DeHaan has agreed to match all outside donations dollar for dollar, meaning Christel House must raise roughly $2.5 million from outside donors.

DeHaan, who started Christel House International in 1998, said she wants to grow her organization to give more students the tools they need for "self-sufficient and productive" lives.

"After 10 years we know the Christel House model works and transforms lives," DeHaan wrote in an e-mail. "It feels absolutely fantastic to bring this opportunity to more children in Indianapolis and around the world."

'Poorest of the poor'

In foreign countries, Christel House says it tries to educate the "poorest of the poor."

Schneider spends one week a year at each Christel House location. He even makes an auditing trip to some of the students' homes to see if they are, indeed, poor enough to be enrolled at the school.

This is far more complex than asking for tax returns—no neat documentation exists in the informal economies of Mexico City or Caracas, Venezuela. What Schneider does is check to see what the students' houses look like.

Schneider uses a checklist from a 250-page manual of processes and procedures he compiled last year.

Does it have electricity? Does it have running water? Does it have a toilet? Does it have flooring instead of just dirt? Does it have more than one room?

If a student's house has all those things, his or her family probably isn't poor enough for Christel House, Schneider says.

By more tightly managing its far-flung schools, Schneider said, Christel House now can afford to take on the administration costs of more schools—provided the buildings and instruction are funded by an outside source.

In India, Christel House is in negotiations with a large developer to fund a school for about 500 families it will displace with its 25,000-acre project. It wants Christel House to operate the school for the children of those families, as well as the children of the employees who will work in the hotels and other businesses of the development.

Christel House has signed a letter of intent with the developer, Hindustan Construction Co. During a visit to India this month, DeHaan and Schneider will decide whether to sign a management agreement with the company.

They will then travel to Free State, the poorest state in South Africa. Its premier has twice visited Christel House's offices in Market Tower in downtown Indianapolis. Now, Christel House officials will see if Free State is prepared to support a new school.

While Christel House is poised for expansion, Wendling said, it wants funding partners so it does not commit to more than it can truly handle.

"We have to be smart; we have to be measured," she said, "and we can't overextend ourselves."

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