Roiled by unsustainable debts, a disintegrating school board and violations of state requirements, Indiana College Preparatory School in Indianapolis has lost its charter and will close at the end of the school year.
The charter was revoked by the Mayor's Office of Education Innovation, the city announced Thursday morning.
Families have complained about frequent teacher turnover, discipline issues and a lack of services for students with disabilities at the school, according to Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office.
The future seemed uncertain, too, for I Can Schools, the Cleveland-based not-for-profit company contracted to run the school, after some of its struggling schools in Ohio were absorbed by another company.
The mayor’s office, which authorized Indiana College Preparatory School’s charter, said it tried to work with the school for nearly two years to improve its finances and governance. But it revoked the charter Tuesday after the school’s entire board resigned.
The shutdown in June will leave about 240 students looking for new schools.
The mayor’s office decided not to close the school immediately to try to minimize disruptions for students, who begin ISTEP testing next week, said Brian Dickey, interim director of the mayor’s charter school office.
School leaders did not return calls or an email seeking comment.
Indiana College Preparatory School, which serves grades K-8, opened in the 2015-16 school year. It replaced a closed charter school, Andrew Academy, near 38th Street and Sherman Drive, and many of the students stayed to enroll at Indiana College Preparatory School.
It was put on probation last year.
“We’d started seeing red flags on the financial side,” Dickey said.
The school seemed unable to pay its bills in the short-term, and accumulating debt raised concerns about long-term financial health, he said.
It ended its first year with only four days’ worth of cash on hand, according to city documents. At one point, the school was running a deficit of about $780,000.
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which owns the school building, reached out to the mayor’s office when the academy didn’t pay its rent.
An audit filed in February 2017 showed Indiana College Preparatory School was not in compliance with the state’s guidelines for charter school accounting, highlighting questions about the schools’ internal controls.
Indiana College Preparatory School was receiving more than $2 million from the state for its students, the audit showed. The school had also received a $174,000 federal charter school grant, according to city documents, and it took out a $500,000 loan from the state’s Common School Fund.
Dickey and Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said some of the school’s financial problems stemmed from an unexpected drop in enrollment.
“New charter schools are start-up organizations, and they are very sensitive to enrollment,” Dickey said. “And if that enrollment isn’t maintained, particularly in the early onset, it can really complicate things on the finance side.”
In the school’s second year, it lost about one-quarter of its students by the spring, the mayor’s office said.
Considering that Indiana College Preparatory School offered transportation, Bennett said, “for 25 percent to vote with their feet not to come back is just a red flag. For whatever reason, we don’t know. But it’s beyond the norm of any school to drop that much.”
Last year, the mayor’s office found out that I CanSchools had transferred seven Ohio schools to another company, in part because of financial deficits.
The mayor’s office was already concerned that the Ohio operator was unfamiliar with Indiana policies. But now, Dickey said, he questioned if I Can’s educational offerings would be diminished without a broader network to rely on.
I Can said it intended to rebrand itself, but never did, Dickey said.
Indiana College Preparatory School’s board tried to address the city’s concerns about governance and teacher hiring, but Dickey said the mayor’s office wasn't satisfied with the response.
Academically, the school was receiving low ratings from the state. Its students weren’t showing much growth. The school was hiring many substitute teachers, city documents show, failing to employ enough teachers licensed in their subject areas to meet state requirements.
And the school’s financial situation, Dickey said, only grew worse.
When the mayor’s office put the school under “threat of potential revocation” last month, three out of four board members resigned. Unable to operate with a sole board member, the last remaining one resigned this week.
“Anytime a school has to close, I don’t know that that’s ever a good thing,” said Jamyce Curtis Banks, the former board president. She declined to answer questions about the school’s challenges, saying they should be directed to the school or the school operator instead.
Other former board members did not return messages.
A parent who recently pulled her children out of Indiana College Preparatory School said the school needed to be shut down.
La’Key Eldridge said her second-grade son did not have a special education teacher, and she felt the school wasn’t equipped to handle his disorders.
“I knew that my son needed special education help, because he wasn’t picking up on certain vocabulary words,” she said.
Eldridge transferred her two sons to another charter school, and she said her son with special education needs will have to repeat the second grade.
She also raised concerns over how the school handled an incident in the fall reported by Fox59, when two students at the school tested positive for cocaine after eating what they thought was candy.
The last time the mayor’s office revoked a charter was in 2014, because of allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests at Flanner House Elementary Charter School. That school closed immediately, leaving families scrambling to find new schools after the academic year had already started.
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.