2014 WOMAN OF INFLUENCE: Kelly Altman


Since its founding in 1998, The Oaks Academy has been celebrated for its rigorous educational standards and economically and racially diverse student body. One of the problems, though, is that there wasn’t enough room for many students at the Fall Creek Place school.

One parent of a turned-away child was Kelly Altman.

“I fell in love with Oaks,” she said of her 2005 visit. “I was discouraged, but I still felt called there.”

A few years later, Altman—a Lawrence Township teacher—applied again, only this time as an instructor. After five rigorous interviews, she was teaching fifth grade.

“That’s a sweet spot for me,” she said. “You don’t have to dumb down your vocabulary and the students are questioning the world and formulating big ideas. And it’s the last year when kids are in one class for the whole day.”

She was immediately impressed with the sense of community and the intimacy of Oaks. And she was thrilled when talk turned to creating an additional Oaks school in the Brookside neighborhood, making it the only case of an independent, private Indianapolis school replicating itself.

Shortly thereafter, she was asked to head up the new campus. It was new territory for both her and Oaks, but her faith in the school allowed her to make the leap.

“I truly feel as though it’s a family here. It’s a place that allows students to ask ‘stupid’ questions, where there’s sensitivity to the needs of every student to meet their learning needs.”

An early achievement for Altman was helping land Oaks’ first national foundation award, to the tune of $495,000 from the Walton Family Foundation. Altman was actually surprised when the organization responded to her application, and credits the foundation with allowing Oaks to build the campus in a more sustainable way.

Maintaining an 8-to-1 student/teacher ratio and an average class size of 16 across both schools help keep the ISTEP passing rate typically at 100 percent. But those numbers are more remarkable when considering that half the students are low-income, with 75 percent receiving tuition assistance. (All families pay something.)

Altman’s attention is focused both inside and outside the building. She’s proud of having helped the community around the new Oaks.

“We’re a catalyst for renewal,” Altman said. “When we thought about where to place the second school, we chose a blighted neighborhood in need of that renewal.”

It’s also reassuring when she sees her students being headhunted.

“At our high school fair in September, 18 local schools came and actively recruited our students. That said something about an Oaks Academy student.”

And the pressure?

“I don’t feel any additional pressure to succeed because we are an independent school,” Altman said. “The pressure I feel is when I see those students walk in the door.”

Of course, there is still a wait list.

“Boy,” she said, “would I ever love for there to be 20 Oaks academies. But our growth has to be healthy and sustainable. There are few things that can truly transform a person,” Altman said. “You can win the lottery and still end up poor. It’s not money. It’s education and faith that transform the lives of people.”•

To read other Women of Influence profiles, please click here.

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