Charter service center works to broaden its reach: Collaborative programs a focus for organization

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No charter school is an island-at least not from Kevin Teasley’s perspective.

In fact, the independence at the very core of the charter movement creates demand for the kind of assistance his Charter School Service Center offers.

“The fact that we have our own charter school makes us more helpful to others,” said Teasley, CEO of Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation. “We know what they need. Or at least we think we do.”

GEO Foundation, which operates 21st Century Charter School at Union Station and is opening three more charters this fall, founded the service center in 2002 to provide hands-on help to others.

Early on, it focused on the back-office nuts and bolts necessary to get a school up and running-helping would-be operators develop proposals and walking them through the application process, or lining up volume discounts on everything from payroll services to accounting software.

Since late 2003, GEO and the center have published Charter Schools Today, a quarterly newsmagazine that provides an overview of the charter school movement in Indiana.

Now the center is broadening its scope, exploring collaborative relationships that may have a more direct impact on students.

It spearheaded creation of an honors choir, for example, since most schools couldn’t afford such a program on their own.

Center staff also helped identify and secure a two-year, $1.5 million grant from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation to Indianapolis-based Learning Well Inc. Learning Well will use the grant this year to set up 15 school-based health clinics in charters, plus three sites in Decatur, Franklin and Wayne township schools.

And more of that kind of assistance is likely, thanks to a $40,000 gift from The Indianapolis Foundation to help hire a fulltime development director who will investigate and apply for grants on behalf of all eligible charters.

“We intend to leap all over that like stink on a skunk,” said Muriel Ryan, headmaster at Rural Community Academy, an 89-student charter in Sullivan County. “We’re constantly shorthanded, so that will benefit us greatly.”

That’s the idea, Teasley said. The service center exists to help with tasks school operators don’t have the time or resources to do themselves-whether that’s sniffing out funding, lining up discounts or working on partnerships with other schools.

“School leaders are worried about whether the bathrooms are clean, whether lunch gets served, whether substitutes show up,” he said. “They don’t have time to write a grant application. We make it possible.”

Next up: art and music programs for students and a health insurance consortium for employees.

“We want to widen the horizon of what we can do for schools,” Teasley said.

Ball State University charter school guru Marty Dezelan is complimentary of the service center concept, saying it is poised to give schools a much-needed boost.

About 20 schools are members of the service center, paying $500 a year to access the vendor discounts and other benefits. Schools that participate in the choir share that expense, Teasley said.

Members can chose which programs to participate in. Goodwill Industries’ two Indianapolis Metropolitan Academy high schools, for example, use the discounted bookkeeping service, but not the substitute teachers.

School staff also have participated in some center-sponsored training, said Carolyn McCutcheon, chief administrative officer at Goodwill Education Initiatives Inc., which is involved in discussions about other collaborative programs.

“As small schools, we really try to do everything we can,” she said. “But we don’t always have the infrastructure to do everything.”

Teasley is pleased with the center’s progress so far, and has high hopes for the direction it’s heading.

“I’d like to build what we do here and replicate it throughout the state where there are other clusters of charter schools,” he said. “We all benefit from a successful charter movement. It’s not just about us.”

Charter Schools Honors Choir Director Melissa Keylock helps a student during a recent rehearsal. Students from six schools belong to the choral group.

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