Parents react to closure of charter schools

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Ball State University officials’ decision to close seven of the charter schools it oversees could leave more than 2,600 Indiana students looking for a new school next year.  The seven schools’ supporters say many of these students turned to charters after traditional settings failed them.  Ball State’s supporters say these charters are failing students now.  As StateImpact Indiana’s Kyle Stokes reports, some parents are struggling to reconcile data showing their school underperforming… with evidence suggesting their children are learning…

Lanonya Jackson got tired of her daughter bringing home D’s and F’s on her report cards.  Something had to give.  So Jackson pulled her out of the Gary Community Schools and enrolled her in Charter School of the Dunes.  Just like that, her daughter’s grades improved.  Jackson thinks she knows why:  her daughter loves the charter school’s teachers.  In the school district, “Some of the teachers really just didn’t care about their job anymore. They really lost hope. And so we arrive here, the teachers have so much love and so much hope and so much confidence that no matter who your child is, they can succeed.”

But where Jackson sees success, Ball State officials see lackluster standardized test scores.  Dunes is one of the seven schools in Gary, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and Richmond the university plans to close at the end of this year.  Jackson says it’s unfair — the students who flocked to charter schools enrolled because they felt there was nowhere else to go, “The children would be lost. I really believe that. If you really check out the other schools in the Gary system, it’s almost hopeless — almost hopeless, I still believe there’s hope.”

Looking at the statewide test scores, Charter School of the Dunes parents could do better enrolling their kids at the Gary Community School around the corner.  But test scores aren’t first on every parent’s mind.  Jackson worries about violence in the traditional school district.  ‘I think about my kid’s test scores,’ another parent says, ‘but I’m more concerned for her safety.’

“There are a lot of reasons that parents pick schools for sure. But it’s not good enough just to provide a safe school.”Indiana Public Charter Schools Association president Russ Simnick says charter leaders set their own goals for enrollment and test scores when they apply to open a school… and Ball State or any authorizer has to step in when school leaders fail to meet those goals. “Unfortunately, sometimes that means you shut down the best school in the neighborhood. It still might be an underperforming school that needs to be shut down, but, it might be the best option in the neighborhood at that time.”

That’s tough in the short term, Simnick says — but it’s better for students in the long term.  It’s better, says Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, because charter schools that get closed are at the bottom of the barrel.

Richmond: “And the kinds of things you’re hearing these people say are that we should pay no attention to whether kids can read at grade level or not, because, ‘Well they like it here.’”

Across the state in southeast Fort Wayne, kids are just arriving at Timothy L. Johnson Academy — another charter school Ball State marked for closure.

It’s a soggy morning, so the students’ shoes squeak as they shuffle into the gym.  Like Charter School of the Dunes, Johnson Academy’s students are mostly poor and mostly African American.  So the school’s leaders have added a second creed to the students’ morning routine.  After the Pledge of Allegience, students ‘accept the challenge’.

‘I will do everything to keep my teacher teaching,’ the students promise, ‘and everyone — myself included — learning.’  The school’s leaders say the creed is an important part of their school culture.  Johnson Academy board president Rev. Michael Nickelson says they want to teach students who haven’t succeeded in other schools that they can set high goals.

“Yes, we’d all love for our schools to do extremely well and the bottom to be as good as the top. But there is a bottom. And someone has to care for it. And we’re that people. That’s our mission. We care.”

Nickelson says that approach doesn’t do any favors for the school’s test scores.  It takes time to turn a student around.  Fewer than 40 percent of Johnson Academy’s African American students passed the ISTEP last year… only a few points better than black students in the local school district.  For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Kyle Stokes.

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