Nearly eight years after Indiana seized three struggling campuses from Indianapolis Public Schools, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to hand the schools back, bringing to a close a turnaround experiment that sparked enduring change in the state’s largest district.
The dramatic decision, which passed 6-2, is a significant shift from the state board’s longstanding support for Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based manager hired to improve the schools. It’s also an implicit vote of confidence in IPS, a district that has redefined its reputation through its collaboration with charter schools.
The vote means that IPS is poised to close Thomas Carr Howe High School. Meanwhile, Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School and Emmerich Manual High School will almost certainly become innovation schools, managed by charter operators under IPS oversight. A local charter school, Christel House Academy South, will move into the Manual building and serve the current students. The district will choose a new operator for Donnan.
In the days before the vote, Charter Schools USA scrambled to maintain control of the campuses. After they were rejected by the state charter board, the group reached out to a second authorizer, asked the state to grant them a year-long extension, and appealed to families from the schools to show their support for the operator at Wednesday’s board of education meeting.
But in the end, Charter Schools USA and its allies were unable to prevent the board from choosing what had become the most expedient way of ending the takeover—handing control of the troubled schools back to the district from which they had been severed.
The decision came on the same day that the board voted 10-0 to end the state takeover of Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary, which was seized at the same time as the Indianapolis campuses. The campus will be turned over to Gary Community Schools, which is also under state takeover, after this school year.
The Indianapolis schools have had mixed performance under Charter Schools USA management. Donnan and Manual both have seen their state letter grades rise, and the three schools outperform many district schools on state tests. But the enrollment at the campuses dramatically shrunk after the state takeover and it has not fully rebounded.
For the students at the schools, however, keeping them with Charter Schools USA offered the promise of stability. At public meetings, students and teachers spoke about how much they love the schools, the close relationships they had, and the positive outcomes for students who were struggling when they entered. Returning the schools to IPS means breaking up those communities, and forcing students to undergo dramatic, and potentially disruptive, changes at their schools.
It seemed as if Charter Schools USA would easily win permanent control of the schools when the state board voted last March to instruct the operator to seek charters to continue running the campuses after the takeover ended.
But the organization encountered several pitfalls over the last 10 months.
A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that graduation rates at Howe and Manual exclude many students who left without earning diplomas because they were labeled as leaving to be home-schooled, even though the students weren’t necessarily continuing their education at home. When students are labeled as leaving for home schools, instead of listed as dropping out, they are removed from graduation calculations—a practice that boosts graduation rates.
In 2019, the graduation rate at Manual fell 21 percentage points from 2018 to 57%, after a state audit found the school did not have the proper documentation for many of the students designated as leaving to home-school.
Under the leadership of Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who took the helm of the district in July, IPS began a campaign to win back the takeover campuses. Officials raised questions over what would happen to debt if it transferred the school buildings to a new manager. And the district cut ties with Charter Schools USA, which it had partnered with to open the elementary school at Donnan, and said it planned to select another manager, based in Indiana, for the school.
But perhaps IPS most important step was finding a new, politically powerful ally. In December, the district announced that if the schools were returned to its control, it would give the Manual building to Christel House Academy, an influential Indianapolis charter network that would relocate its entire south-side school to the campus and become an innovation school.
A final blow came from the Indiana Charter School Board. Although it had backing from the State Board of Education, Charter Schools USA would need support from a charter authorizer to keep control of the schools. But, in December, the charter board voted 4-3 votes against granting the charters.
In an interview with Chalkbeat ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Sherry Hage, who has led the Indianapolis turnaround work for Charter Schools USA and now as the leader of the not-for-profit handling day-to-day operations at the schools, criticized the charter denials as a “political” and “flawed” process.
She said she hoped the schools could secure charters by April from Trine University’s charter office, known as Education One.
The state charter board rejection returned the future of the schools to the State Board of Education, setting up the vote Wednesday.
Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.