New charter school to dump grade levels for ‘milestones’

A groundbreaking Ohio high school that has junked the concept of grade levels is the model for one of two newly approved Indiana charter school proposals.

To be called “The Mind Program,” the school is led by Broad Ripple High School French teacher Tiffany Thomas. Last year Thomas was part of a group that won $5,000 at InnovateEd, an innovation fair sponsored by the Indianapolis chapter of the national teacher advocacy group Teach Plus and education reform group The Mind Trust.

The Indiana State Charter School Board has given the school approval to open in 2017. Its goal is to start with 225 eighth- and ninth- grade students and expand to 600 in grades 8-12 in four years. The school plans to locate on the far-east side of Indianapolis.

The state charter board also approved The Heritage Institute for Arts and Technology, serving grades K-8, in Merrillville, to open next fall.

The board had previously approved up to 10 charters for Phalen Leadership Academies, but it voted to approve just three new schools. The Phalen network operates an Indianapolis charter school and this year took over managing School 103 under a contract with Indianapolis Public Schools. The state board gave its blessing for Phalen to manage an “innovation network” charter school in partnership with IPS in 2016 and two more in 2017 if the IPS board also approves.

Thomas is listed as CEO for The Mind Program. Darius Sawyers, who shared the InnovateEd award with her last year, is listed as a board member for the school.

Thomas was inspired to combine her goal of a school that encourages student entrepreneurship with an “early college” design when she saw a presentation at a conference by the Dayton Early College Academy, or DECA, in Ohio.

DECA started out as a partnership between Dayton Public Schools and the University of Dayton. The school now operates separately from the school district, is located on the university’s campus and receives financial and other support from the college.

DECA seeks out middle school students with high potential but often less-than-stellar academic accomplishments. The school’s goal is to enrich those students with a college-like experience and high expectations.

One of its distinguishing features, that the Mind Program would copy, is a system of  “gateways” in place of grade levels. Students can advance through the gateways and on to more challenging work as soon as they can demonstrate mastery. They don’t have to earn credits to advance.

DECA opened in 2003 and quickly ascended to the top among Dayton city high schools for test scores and college placement rate.

“The DECA model is based on personalized, rigorous learning supported by strong adult relationships, ‘milestones’ designed to engage students in activities that will prepare them for college or careers,” state charter board general counsel and policy director Michelle McKeown said in a statement, “and a CEO program that gives students the opportunity to start their own business guided by mentors from the business community.”

The state charter board, created by a 2011 expansion of the state’s charter school law, can sponsor schools anywhere in the state. It operates eight Indianapolis charter schools. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office separately sponsors 31 charter schools in the city.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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