Angelea Thomas was still a little overwhelmed Thursday as she buckled her granddaughter, a Flanner House kindergartener, into the car after school.
An otherwise routine day had taken a shocking turn. She and other parents and grandparents were hurriedly informed that morning that an investigation had found Flanner House had cheated on the state ISTEP exam and, as a result, the board that oversees it had decided to close it down.
She has a little less than three weeks to find the little girl a new school.
“It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” Thomas said.
She said she’s still struggling to believe allegations that at least some teachers at Flanner House had gone as far as to erase their students’ ISTEP answers and change them.
“What message does that send to the kids?” she said. “This is affecting so many people, an entire community.”
Thomas’ mix of anger, disappointment and disbelief was widely shared Thursday among those connected to Flanner House School, the community center that shares its name and the wider education community in Indianapolis.
A ‘gut wrenching’ decision
Less than an hour after the news about Flanner House broke, Mayor Greg Ballard was cutting the ribbon to open a new charter school, the Visions Academy on Riverside Drive. He grimaced when reporters quickly pivoted to the Flanner House news in interviews after the event.
“These are always gut wrenching decisions,” he said. “It was disappointing. We initiated that investigation and asked the state to help us look at that. The board, to their credit, made the right decision.”
A meeting for parents after school was closed to the public, but parents coming out from it said there were a lot of tough questions for school officials and some hard feelings.
Sarah Shelton, who was picking up her kindergartener from Flanner House school Thursday afternoon, said she was frustrated that the school left families in the lurch by closing so soon after the start of the school year.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Shelton said. “I’m frustrated. If they knew this was happening, why did they even enroll us? Us parents have spent all this money on clothes, school uniforms and supplies. Now we have to transfer them to another school, which isn’t going to have the same colors. We’re starting all over, basically. We’re going to be doing double-time trying to find them another school.”
There weren’t easy answers to such concerns.
Pat Roe, chairwoman of the school’s board, said the decision to close was aimed at trying to make it easier for the children. The school year has just begun and the hope is they can assimilate quickly to new schools.
“As a board we are concerned about perception of the community but believe our first priority is to the families we serve,” she said in a statement that was read Thursday by radio host Amos Brown on WTLC’s Afternoons with Amos program. “We are trying to help our families make decisions that are in the best interests of their young person.”
Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman Kristin Cutler said the district’s leadership team immediately started working on a plan to enroll Flanner House students who wish to transfer to schools in the district.
“We’re welcoming any Flanner House students to IPS and will provide them with excellent service and educational opportunities,” Cutler said.
Ballard’s office also said it would help find space in other charter schools for parents who preferred that option.
A breach of trust
Wilbert Buckner, the executive director of the Flanner House community center, which rented space to the school but is a separate organization, said he understands the disappointment and frustration of parents at the school.
“It’s kind of a sad day for us,” he said. “People didn’t necessarily know what was going on. It’s kind of come as a shock for lots of people at this point.”
The 116-year old institution was founded as a charity to support African-American families. It runs a highly-rated preschool, a senior citizens center and a public library branch from its location.
Flanner House School, which opened in 2002, was also aimed at helping African-American families. Its students are about 98 percent African American and 96 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The school had once earned good grades from the state before test scores began to slide. It was placed on a performance improvement plan by Ballard, its sponsor and overseer, about two years ago.
Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said it was difficult to see the school closed by such a serious breach of trust as cheating allegations.
“This is going to be extremely disruptive, especially for the children,” Russell said. “It’s just saddening and shocking that adults would behave in this manner.”
Charter school concerns
Tosha Salyers, with the Institute for Quality Education, said the actions of the adults at Flanner House are shocking and wrong but shouldn’t reflect badly on charter schools.
“I think because it is a charter school, we’ll hear certain folks trying to make generalizations about the charter movement as a whole, which isn’t true,” Salyers said. “It’s just a bunch of adults who made some bad decisions who happened to be involved in a charter school.”
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association who worked as a kindergarten teacher in Shelbyville until last year, said that with almost a month of school having gone by for some students, they’ll have to acclimate quickly and catch up with where curriculum in a new school might be.
“We are concerned about the students and what’s going to happen to them as they head into their new environment,” Meredith said.
ISTA has been critical of school choice programs, such as publicly funded charter schools and vouchers that children can use to pay private school tuition.
“We are very concerned about what’s happening not just here, but across the country with charter schools,” she said.
But David Harris, CEO of the Indianapolis-based non-profit The Mind Trust, which advocates for educational change and supports charter schools, said there is no evidence that charter schools are inherently more prone to cheating than public schools.
“There’s examples of cheating scandals in all different types of schools, including district-wide,” Harris said. “These kinds of things will happen. The question is what is the recourse once it’s uncovered.”
What to tell the children?
Policy debates over the merits of charter vs. traditional public schools are not on the minds of Flanner House parents this week.
Thomas, the grandmother of a Flanner House kindergartener, feels fortunate that the girl is so young and school is so new for her. It might make her transition easier.
Still, she worries about the older children at the school who understand the school is closing because of wrongdoing.
“I think they’ll be very affected,” Thomas said. “Their friends are going to be split up.”
And she wondered aloud how she would tell her own grandchild that she would not be returning to her friends or teacher after next month.
“I don’t know how to tell her,” Thomas said. “I don’t want her to distrust her teachers or people in authority. I guess I could call it a mistake.”