IPS study-abroad innovation school to take year off

An Indianapolis school that allowed students to study abroad in 11th grade will close for the coming school year while leaders try to work through challenges that arose during its first year.

An Indianapolis Public Schools innovation school, Thrival Academy Indy made it possible for students from low-income and middle-class families to study for free in Thailand while in high school.

Its founding leader, India Hui, wants to take the 2019-2020 academic year to plan for the school’s financial sustainability, fix its logistical issues and determine how students can travel abroad without missing out on career-training opportunities. She said she intends to relaunch Thrival in a year after the “pause.”

The IPS board is expected to vote Thursday on an agreement to suspend the contract with Thrival. If approved, Hui would need to agree with the board on revised plans for the school later this year.

“Innovation is messy, and if this were easy to do, then schools would have been doing it,” Hui said. “It’s going to take fortitude, and it’s going to take making adjustments to find the groove.”

The school, which ran a small pilot in 2017-18 before officially launching last year, only enrolls students for their junior year of high school. During the first part of the year, they prepare to go abroad while taking classes with Thrival teachers on the Arsenal Technical High School campus. Then they head to Thailand for several months.

From the beginning, students struggled to fit the one-year school into their four years of high school, Hui said. That’s because high schoolers who want to get career training or complete one of the district’s new academy focus areas may have to take courses as juniors. Fulfilling specialized tracks can also help students graduate under new state requirements.

“What we know with our college and career pathways is that 11th-grade year is actually the year many of our students need to take specialized courses,” said Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. “We need to do some work to align how a program like Thrival can intersect with the other coursework that our students are taking that won’t throw them off of their graduation pathways.”

The school also encountered some logistical problems last year. Just 39 of the 52 students who enrolled last school year ended up going to Thailand, Hui said.

Some students struggled to obtain passports because of differences between the names on their birth certificates and their social security cards. A few students are refugees and could not get the necessary travel documents in time. Other students who are from immigrant families were afraid to leave the country, Hui said.

Funding remains an issue, too. Thrival is funded through the same per-student formula IPS uses with its more traditional schools. During its first year, it relied on a grant from The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis not-for-profit that supports innovation schools, to cover travel to Thailand. Now it needs to find an ongoing funding source, according to Hui.

The school board would have to vote on a new or amended contract with the school before it relaunches.

Some school board members suggested that Thrival would be better as a program than a full-fledged school, since it only serves students for one year. But other board members said they had heard glowing feedback from high schoolers who had enrolled.

“I really give you kudos for taking the opportunity to pause and to look at the program,” said board member Elizabeth Gore.

Over the next several months, Hui is looking to hire a new leader for the school who she will work alongside. Ultimately, she aims to come up with a plan that puts the school on more solid ground for the coming years.

“We should be proud that we are willing to say, ‘we got some things to work through and think about before we continue to move forward.’ Because when you just press forward and ignore the issues, then you do more harm than good,” Hui said. “I am an Indianapolis kid. … I’m not here to do harm to the city.”

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

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