“Closed” Indy Charter School Soldiers On
Last summer, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office closed The Project School, a charter on the city’s east side. Authorities closing a charter school for low test scores is nothing new. But what happened next was surprising: About 20 defiant Project School families declared in August they would hold classes this year, charter or not — and they have, despite a lack of accreditation or funding. StateImpact Indiana’s Kyle Stokes visited the new school, “Project Libertas,” as its ragtag parents and staff search for a more permanent home.
Gym class at Project Libertas is unusual — and not because the younger students call their game of dodgeball “Destroy All Students.”
Gym class is unusual because it actually takes place in a gym. All of the classes take place in a gym: 35 students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade squeeze into tiny rooms between the gym’s trampolines and tumbling mats. The church-owned building is a fitting home for a misfit school: “I don’t even know there’s a word to describe us here. We’d need a few hyphenations. We’re an, independent-hyphen-communal-hyphen-startup school.”
Matthew Brooks has become parent-in-chief at Project Libertas. When the Mayor ordered The Project School closed in August, and when some of that school’s staff declared they would hold school this year, Brooks was among the first to take up the challenge: “I mean, parents are calling me saying, ‘School? What do you mean?’ And I was like, ‘I mean, real school, we’re going to do this.’”
Even for the school choice haven of Indiana, what Libertas parents have created this year takes school choice to an extreme. And many of Libertas’ parents chose this school for the same reason they chose The Project School: they felt there was nowhere better for their kids to go.
“I like it because I can leave my kids here and I feel like they have another mom and dad,” says Audretta Wright, who enrolled four of her children in Project Libertas after a bad experience soured her to mainstream schools. “I’m not prejudiced at all — but they were at a school where my kids were ignored. And although these teachers all here are white, they care about these kids whether they black, Mexican, white, it doesn’t matter.”
Project Libertas parents refused to turn any students away — which comes at a high cost. The school’s tuition is whatever families can afford to pay. That covers only half of the school’s expenses. Donations and fundraisers cover some of the rest. Libertas parents know their choice comes with a huge financial challenge — and they’re trying to be practical:
“There’s a lot of normal parents here. I feel like I’m one of ‘em,” says Jeremy Clay, who has five children at Project Libertas. He left his business as a contractor to stay at home with his kids. But now he’s started taking jobs again. When his clients pay, Clay asks them to write the checks straight to Project Libertas. “Our year is totally not what we thought it was. And it’s a lot more difficult. We’re having to be involved at a level that I haven’t been involved with anything in a long time, both financially and physically.”
And academically, Libertas will have to prove itself too. The school’s staff of 4 uses state standards to guide their lessons. But Libertas students won’t take statewide tests this year. And the school will have to earn accreditation — all against the backdrop of The Project School’s closure. A mayor’s office review of The Project School before it closed found the school wasn’t meeting some key standards of academic performance, curriculum strength and fiscal health. But Matthew Brooks says Project Libertas is a chance for the students to start fresh.
“We aren’t the Project School. The leadership from the Project School is not here. Most of the founders are not here. We’re something completely different”
Brooks says Libertas parents will apply in April to become a “freeway school” — a kind of private school that’s approved directly by the State Board of Education. That way families could use state vouchers to pay their tuition. Students would start taking statewide tests again. The school would actually be able to fully compensate it’s staff. In other words: Project Libertas could move back onto the grid. For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Kyle Stokes.