Charter authorizer rejects bid from Indianapolis school with rocky history

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(Adobe Stock photo)
(Adobe Stock photo)

The Genius School in Indianapolis has lost its bid for a charter from a second authorizer, after the Education One board at Trine University rejected its application Wednesday, citing concerns with inflated enrollment targets and financial projections.

The 3-0 vote creates uncertainty about the future of the troubled Genius School on the eastside of Indianapolis. The small school, which is co-located with GEO Next Generation High School, has a charter with the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation that expires at the end of this school year.

The Education One board on Wednesday also voted 3-0 to revoke the charter for Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary, citing ongoing struggles with staff turnover, declining enrollment, and academic underperformance. The school is in the second year of a three-year charter extension set to expire in June 2025.

Without a charter, Thea Bowman’s roughly 850 students could be forced to look for new schools in June, when the revocation takes effect. However, the school is seeking approval from Calumet College of St. Joseph, another charter authorizer. In a press release after the vote, Education One’s executive director expressed disappointment that the school has decided to seek approval from another authorizer rather than rectify its deficiencies.

The votes follow a Chalkbeat analysis of Marion County charter schools that found a lack of guardrails in state law to ensure that charter schools and their authorizers are held accountable. State law provides little oversight of schools seeking approval from a new authorizer after facing scrutiny from their existing one.

The Genius School renamed itself after Indianapolis Public Schools removed it from the district’s network of autonomous Innovation schools. In its decision to sever ties with the school, which used to be called Ignite Achievement Academy, the district cited high staff turnover, poor academic results, and low attendance.

The school, which was placed on probationary status by the Office of Education Innovation around January 2022, withdrew from the renewal process with the authorizer earlier this year.

The Genius School’s head of school, Shy-Quon Ely II, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chalkbeat’s analysis also found that roughly one-third of brick-and-mortar or blended-model charter schools in Indianapolis have closed since the passage of the state’s charter school law in 2001.

Education One staff also cited concerns with the school’s ability to implement a multi-faceted model focused on the whole child.

Staff also had concerns with the Genius School’s ability to hit projected enrollment targets. State records show it had an enrollment of 74 students last school year. In its application, the school set a goal of reaching 150 students in 2024-25.

Staff also cited an insufficient timeline for its facility plans, and noted that the proposed budget would put the school in a deficit within its first two years.

Education One Executive Director Lindsay Omlor said that staff shared their feedback with the school.

“I don’t know if they’ll apply to us again in the spring, if they’ll shoot for another authorizer, if they’ll just call it a day,” Omlor said.

Meanwhile, staff cited ongoing struggles with staff turnover, declining enrollment, and academic underperformance at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy.

This isn’t the first time a charter authorizer has spurned the school. In 2016, Ball State University declined to renew the school’s charter. That same year, the school sought authorization from the Indiana Charter School Board, but that board also declined to sponsor the school. Eventually, Education One authorized the school in 2016.

The school was able to rectify organizational concerns and greatly improve academic performance within its first two years at Trine, Omlor told board members at the meeting. But things have gone downhill since then, she indicated.

She said Education One staff have had “had really strong ongoing concerns related to both academic and organizational performance” over the last three years.

But in a statement, the school argued that the revocation was retaliation for seeking authorization from Calumet College of St. Joseph, which it pursued beginning in March because a “disconnect” had developed between Education One and the school. The school said it notified Education One of intent to change authorizers on Oct. 30.

The concerns cited in Education One’s notice of revocation are present in other urban school districts and said the authorizer has had “little to no in-person contact”, the school argued. “The challenges are real and require real time and real attention.”

Phalen Leadership Academies, which manages the school, referred comment to the school.

This school year alone, staff turnover at Thea Bowman is the highest it’s been for the school at over 50%, Omlor said. Enrollment has also declined from over 1,200 students seven years ago to 850 this year, she said.

The school also underperforms on state tests compared to some similar nearby schools, according to annual performance reviews — most notably at the high school level. It has consistently failed to meet overall academic standards in such annual reviews.

The school has also not set performance goals with Phalen Leadership Academies and has failed to communicate with stakeholders such as Education One, Omlor said at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Today’s difficult decision was made first and foremost with the interests of students, families, and taxpayers in mind,” Omlor said in a statement after the vote. “While we never set out to close a school, it is our obligation to ensure our schools are upholding their duty to provide high quality educational options for kids and communities across the state.”

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

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16 thoughts on “Charter authorizer rejects bid from Indianapolis school with rocky history

  1. Many of these charter schools seem to be run by unqualified scammers – perhaps the IBJ could look into the leadership of some of them and publish an article on their previous history and what they are paying themselves now?

    Anytime you see a school with words like ‘genius’, ‘success,’ ‘achievement’ or similar in its name it’s virtually guaranteed none of those things actually exist there.

    1. We need less, not more organizations that can charter schools … and/or strict accountability standards for those that choose to. They shouldn’t just get their 3% cut with no accountability. (Could make the case Daleville schools should have been shut down over their role in that $86 million dollar Indiana Virtual School scandal.)

      But this is Indiana and this entire exercise is just an excuse to fund private religious schools and reward charter school advocates who donate to legislators. Educational outcomes don’t matter.

    2. Joe B. – “fund private religious schools”, please tell me, what is the percentage of vouchers that go towards “religious” schools, versus secular private/charter schools?

    3. Any percentage larger than zero is not an appropriate use of public funds.

      And this is from a product of 12 years of private religious education and who sent his own kids to a private religious school for a few years.

      If you want to use your own dollars to send a kid there, that’s your choice. But public tax dollars should not be used for schools that discriminate on who they they admit (easy to pad your stats when you refuse to take kids who need hell due to being special needs) and those that offer different educational options for boys over girls with the exact same test scores … because it’s not the woman’s place to be in those advanced classes.

    4. Name a religious school that will not admit kids who do not practice the religion, or kids that have special needs. I won’t even address your last silly statement, but tell me which one does this. If the public option offered has failed (which it has), then the public should be able to take those tax dollars elsewhere to educate their child. Saying that they cannot choose a religious school for that, is discriminatory based religion. Separation of church and state does not banning church, it means not promoting one over the other and keep all things equal.

    5. It comes from my own personal experience. You can call it silly all day, we lived it and pulled our kids from the school. And this was after an entire year of battles as my son had to deal with a teacher who dismissed a clinical diagnosis of dyslexia as “he just wasn’t trying hard enough”.

      You can choose a religious school all day long. You just shouldn’t expect other citizens to pay for it. Catholic schools, most notably, existed for a century without vouchers.

    6. Got it, so an individual teacher, not religious schools as a whole. That clears that up. The bottom line is, the state has been mandated to provide viable education for all. Public schools in general have failed, miserably. So as a direct result of that, the state is now providing a viable education via vouchers. Why do you care if the tax dollars go to one building or another, especially when one of those buildings is failing to educate the children under it’s roof. Take the animus for religion out of it, the tax dollars that were previously failing to educate a child are now funding education that is working for that child, that is a success.

    7. You didn’t read closely enough – both my kids were failed by private religious schools, with no support from the administration who chose to support the teachers. Which is why I left after multiple frustrating years and put them in public schools. Paying $10000 a year for a substandard education made no sense to me (this was before the Legislature decided all you needed to get a voucher was a pulse). And that’s leaving aside that their creationist textbooks weren’t exactly leaving them ready for their lives.

      If public schools in general have failed, exactly why are so many people moving to Hamilton County to have their kids attend Carmel or HSE or Zionsville? Why is Mt Vernon booming? What about Center Grove or Avon or Plainfield or … I could keep going. There are lots of public schools doing quite well in the Indianapolis area, because they’re spending big money on shiny new buildings and they get their referendums approved so they can get the appropriate amount of funding. Which tells me the problem isn’t public schools, it’s underfunded public schools.

      And if private schools are “working for the child” or are “viable”, what does that mean? Private schools aren’t doing any better than public schools on test scores. As noted, they close quickly and leave kids in the lurch, and they’re able to persist for several years before they can finally be shut down. We let all kinds of groups authorize charters with little oversight and we encourage it by letting them take a financial cut of that per-student funding. Indiana is still out multiple millions from Indiana Virtual Schools and we just shrug about it.

      Are there successful private schools? Sure. Why doesn’t the state of Indiana, which is paying for all this, require other failing private schools (of which there are many) to do what works elsewhere if they want tax dollars? Where is the accountability that’s demanded from public schools … for private schools? Why does one use of taxpayer funds have all kinds of mandates and regulations and restrictions from the state level and the other … is allowed to go free range with limited oversight and, if they fail and leave a bunch of uneducated kids as society’s problem to deal with, welp, too bad?

      The solution to some bad school districts and a hatred for teachers unions isn’t to destroy the public education system. It’s to properly fund it. You could break the teachers union in a a month if you doubled their pay. From personal experience during the pandemic, I can tell you they’d still be underpaid.

  2. Basically, it seems as though the authorizers give the schools an area of improvement to decrease staff turnover and improve student achievement, and the management team doesn’t want to do it, so it will shop for a new authorizer. Meanwhile, all these Charter Schools have a board of directors that are powerless have little oversite and can not compel change.

  3. The first reason the state keeps expanding the charter school program is to send tax dollars to religious schools (just look the other way, no church state conflict here), and the second reason is to line the pockets of “businesses” that lobbied to start charter schools (just look the other way, no conflict here either).

    Nationwide studies show 30% of charter schools fold within 4 years. 25% of students leave charters every year because of poor results. A kid attending a four year charter high school has less than a 1 in 4 chance of graduating from that school.

    Charters are a tax payer giveaway to religious or fly by night operators with no oversight or accountability.

    1. Did I mention that as they siphon off teachers from public schools, that the union busting implications aren’t lost on state Republicans either.

    2. Dan M. Tell me how bad public schools are, without telling me how bad public schools are. Nationwide, public schools fail, the worst of the worst, often in Democrat run cities. Why continue to fund them?

    3. So you’re insinuating you’re going to produce the information on a Republican run city that has great public schools. I await the list.

      I don’t see Bob Behning in a hurry to prove he could do better than IPS. Because I think he knows deep down that he’d do just as bad, if not worse. All the better to continue to strip mine them of assets with nonsense like forcing them to give away buildings for $1, and further diluting the amount of funding they get.

      If IPS sold their properties and tried to build a consolidated school that was as nice as those in the donut counties, the Legislature would scream about how they’re wasting funds. I’d look at it as just doing what they need to do to keep up.

    4. Joe B. In case you did not read correctly, “Nationwide, public schools fail”. In other words, no, I will not produce information on Republican run cities having great public schools, because they fail as well. But if you can’t see how to compare public school in Carmel (republican run) to IPS (democrat city), then I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe look at LA, NY, Chicago, etc. In regards to the $1 situation. So are you saying that a publicly funded resource, should profit off of publicly purchased assets, or should the public reuse those assets to try and allow another school an opportunity to succeed, where public school has failed?

    5. “ In regards to the $1 situation. So are you saying that a publicly funded resource, should profit off of publicly purchased assets, or should the public reuse those assets to try and allow another school an opportunity to succeed, where public school has failed?”

      You’re assuming in all cases that a school has closed because it’s a failure, and that the only potential use of a school building is to be a school building.

      You’re also playing fast and loose with the idea of “the public”. The public votes for a school board, who is in change of the district and its assets. What’s happened is that state legislators from elsewhere have decided to remove the role of managing facilities from that school board … engineering a way to transfer public assets to a private entity for far below what the public spent to build and maintain the building.

      If IPS wants to sell Broad Ripple High School to a developer, because that’s the best use of the land and it would allow them to improve the facilities they have, they should be allowed to. The state legislature shouldn’t tell that school board that they’re only allowed to pursue that option in certain cases. If you want a school board that will sell to a charter, vote for them.

      Just like how Carmel’s school board is allowed to issue nine figures in bonds to renovate their football stadium and build a pool rivaling the IU Natatorium.

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