IPS considers new charter partner to run struggling west-side school

Indianapolis Public Schools has nominated the former principal of a school that posted rising achievement and attendance to take over from the troubled Ignite Achievement Academy.

On Thursday, the IPS board heard a proposal to bring in Liberty Grove Schools to run School 42, a small K-6 school on the westside that has faced years of declining achievement that ultimately led IPS to not renew a contract with Ignite, its current operator.

After weeks of heated public meetings in which parents expressed dismay at being shut out of decisions on the school’s future, many applauded the choice of Liberty Grove.

“What I want is for the kids in this building to have a fair shot, to have the opportunities to grow, to get the education they deserve,” said parent Shawanda Tyson. “I appreciated Ignite’s creativity, but parts of the program obviously did not work.”

Commissioners took no action on Thursday. A proposed agreement with Liberty Grove, led by Executive Director Morrise Harbour, is scheduled to come back before the board this spring.

The school will drop Ignite Achievement Academy from its name on July 30, and until it has a new name will be known as Elder Diggs School 42.

The IPS board voted in December to not renew a contract with Ignite Achievement Academy, which has operated School 42 since 2017, citing drops in achievement, enrollment, and attendance, as well as low staff retention.

Ignite’s leadership threatened to take legal action to fight the decision, and later claimed it hadn’t intended to renew its partnership with IPS. The operator is slated to finish out the school year at the campus.

In a presentation to the board, IPS Chief Portfolio Officer Jamie VanDeWalle said the district had difficulty reaching out to Ignite families about plans for the school, because Ignite refused to share their contact information. Ignite’s Chief of Staff Nadia Miller denied this.

IPS administrators said participants in community meetings said they had wanted more forewarning about Ignite’s performance problems, and hoped to see experienced leadership take the helm.

The district believes it has found this quality in Harbour, who was the principal of a charter school in Washington, D.C., before becoming a 2020-2022 fellow at The Mind Trust, a nonprofit charter incubator in Indianapolis.

The district said Milanda Penn, formerly an assistant principal at Christel House Schools, a local network of charter schools, would serve as an assistant principal.

The district’s presentation highlighted rising student achievement and attendance rates under Harbour. It promised better collaboration with the new operator in order to address community concerns about the school not getting enough support from the district.

At the meeting, Harbour outlined the priorities of Liberty Grove Schools, including ensuring teacher effectiveness, choosing a rigorous curriculum, and addressing the social and emotional challenges of students in the community.

IPS Commissioner Taria Slack asked Harbour whether he intended to stay in Indianapolis, given that School 42 has seen years of leadership turnover.

“I have no reason or want to transition if given the opportunity to be the leader of Elder Diggs School 42,” he said. “I’ve experienced the peaks and valleys of being in school leadership. So a lot of the things that I may have to endure as a school leader turning around a school, I have endured that. That’s not going to push me away.”

Slack also asked VanDeWalle why the district didn’t consider operating School 42 itself, rather than bringing in another new innovation school operator.

VanDeWalle said the district sought an operator to begin the transition immediately, given the uncertainty and mixed messages about the school. Liberty Grove Schools, which has already received charter approval from the mayor’s office, was equipped to launch school in the fall, she said.

A statement from Ignite Achievement Academy said the school would continue to operate in another location. It has not disclosed where that would be.

Patrick McAlister, director of the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which issued Ignite’s charter, said the office looked “forward to working collaboratively with them as they prepare for next year.”

“Partnering together the Office of Education Innovation and Ignite Achievement Academy will maintain Ignite’s school charter while also agreeing on a set of academic standards,” school head Shy-Quon Ely said in the statement. “We all want the best for the Ignite community and its Westside network of families and advocates.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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