Lee Rhys felt he was out of options when the charter school his two sons attended was shut down by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office in 2012.
Ballard said The Indianapolis Project School was poorly managed, financially troubled and academically failing. But to Rhys, it was the first school where his boys seemed happy. When it closed, Rhys tried teaching Devon and Noah at home and he soon saw how badly their feelings were hurt by watching their school close.
“It hit them when we started that they weren’t going back,” Rhys said.
Emotions flooded out as they grappled with the loss.
“My older son said, ‘This isn’t a real school. You’re just a fake teacher with some fake stuff in a fake dining room classroom.’”
Charter schools in Indianapolis have closed for all sorts of reasons: financial, managerial and academic and now, in the wake of last week’s closing of Flanner House Elementary School, even for allegations of cheating on the state ISTEP exam.
But that’s the basic bargain of opening a charter school: perform or close. In exchange for increased autonomy to run their schools as they see fit, charter operators face the real threat of being closed down if they don’t fulfill their promises.
So why don’t more low-scoring charter schools close down? It’s simple: the process is so arduous and painful that nobody wants to do it.
Perhaps that makes sense. Charter school proponents often note that traditional public schools rarely close except for financial reasons.
The majority of the state’s charter schools rank in the bottom quarter in the state for the percent of students who pass state tests. But the fact that only about 15 have been closed down in a decade that has seen nearly 100 charter schools open raises a basic question about whether the accountability bargain is working.
“It is a painful, really agonizing process to close a school,” Harris said. “The people who are there are choosing to be there. No one wants to see it happen.”
A ‘significant disruption’
Just days after Flanner House announced its plan to close, Tia Hayes was rushing to find another school for her kindergartner and fifth grader. The school year was already two weeks old.
So Hayes, running late and with only 15 minutes to spare, came by an enrollment fair held at a community center for parents to explore other schools. She had checked out Indianapolis Public Schools, but wanted to look at charter schools, too.
She had a game plan: She wanted a school close to home, a high academic performer and some assurance her child wouldn’t ever have to go through this again.
Hayes couldn’t shake the disappointment that after Sept. 11 her kids would no longer attend the school she also went to as a child — even if it had been embroiled in a shocking cheating scandal.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Investigations by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education found Flanner House students were coached on ISTEP by adults at the school who had improperly reviewed the state test in advance. In some cases, they even erased and changed student answers, the investigators found.
Cheating was alleged last year and this year. The school had low test scores before that. There was low enrollment and financial troubles. So closing the school became the course of action, even though the academic year had just begun.
In an effort to ease the sting, Ballard’s office waived enrollment fees, textbook costs and uniform expenses for the Flanner House kids at their new schools. But it still created upheaval for families.
“It’s a significant disruption of their life,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.
When problems turn to crisis
Most of the charter schools that have been closed over the past few years have been given a full school year to transition, said Brandon Brown, the mayor’s director of charter schools.
Take Andrew Academy and Padua Academy, Catholic schools-turned-charter schools that are no longer religious schools but still are affiliated with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The mayor’s office recently announced it is looking for new management for Andrew Academy for 2015-16, and Padua Academy will return next year to being a Catholic school.
“The academic performance there was unacceptable, but we worked to create a long term transition plan,” Brown said. “When we’re presented with something like the situation at Flanner House, that raises the urgency and can speed up the timeline for making hard decisions.”
But it’s not unusual for a charter school’s problems to turn to a crisis quickly.
In 2012, the Project School was being closely watched by the mayor’s office because its ISTEP passing rate was one of the lowest in the state. Then teachers called in to say they hadn’t been paid on time, prompting Ballard’s team to order the school closed a month before school was supposed to start.
Rhys, the Project School parent, said more notice should be required to close a school.
“There’s got to be a better way than waiting until school is already in session,” Rhys said. “Part of the compact that the mayor’s office makes with parents should include a reasonable notice of a school shutting down. Maybe it’s about asking the state to notify them of ISTEP scores earlier. This just-in-time reporting is really interfering with families.”
Hayes tried to have an open mind about where her children would go after Flanner House.
At the enrollment fair, nearly 30 public, private and charter schools pitched themselves as options for the 170 Flanner House kids who needed new schools.
“It’s very stressful,” Hayes said, “But I guess sometimes change is good.”
Most of the Flanner House students transferred to other charter schools while some went to Indianapolis Public Schools or used the state’s voucher program to pay tuition for private schools.
While there may be options for families, the mayor’s office isn’t taking students’ transitions lightly.
City officials will be following up on Flanner House kids for years, and Brown said. What comes next will be the hardest part of the process, in part because their test scores for the past two years can’t be trusted.
For those children, catching up academically will be as difficult as grappling with the loss of their school and adapting to a new environment.
“We have third graders that have been promoted to fourth grade that we’re unsure of what their actual proficiency level there was,” Brown said. “Almost every Flanner House family has been told their students are proficient when in reality that’s likely not the case. A large number of students haven’t been getting the services they need to improve academically.”
The ultimate accountability
Charter school advocates often celebrate them as innovative free-market solutions to low-scoring public schools. As with a stock that doesn’t provide enough return, investors can sell and invest elsewhere. A closed charter school is like a stock that everyone has given up on.
But there’s a major difference. Unlike stocks, schools are built on the one-to-one relationships of students, teachers, parents and others that can’t be so easily severed. No matter why they shut down, a closed school breaks apart a group of people who have come together to try to help children they care about.
The accompanying emotions are comparable to other painful losses in life.
Julie Shannon helped build the playground when her children attended The Project School. When it closed, she said it felt like a divorce.
“We had to say goodbye to this family, and we knew what was going to be left was not what we had all invested in,” Shannon said.
For those who have led the closings, the bad memories are enough to discourage going that road again, no matter how dire the situation.
David Harris, CEO of the The Mind Trust, was then-Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter school director in 2005 when he led the process to close Flanner House Higher Learning Center. That school, managed separately from Flanner House Elementary School, closed amid serious charges of falsified enrollment records intended to capture state aid fraudulently.
Even with strong evidence of wrongdoing, closing the school wasn’t any easier. Harris said he lost 10 pounds in just a few weeks while leading the closure for Peterson.
Even so, Harris insisted it’s important for charter school sponsors, like the mayor’s office, to take the difficult step to close troubled schools in the interest of the students. Besides Ballard, sponsors include the state and public and private universities. The biggest sponsors, also called authorizers, in Indiana are Ballard, Ball State University and the state Charter School Board.
“The bigger story of charters is that authorizers haven’t done as good a job of closing down schools,” Harris said. “The biggest problem is we have too many authorizers who aren’t directly accountable to the families the school serves. They don’t have the right incentives.”
Ballard’s office expects to face pushback from parents any time it has to announce a tough decision. Even when the evidence for Flanner House cheating seemed to be clear and well-documented, students and parents still made signs in protest of closing the school — and still held out hope that the school would be saved.
But Kloth said he’s willing to face pushback if it means that low-performing schools close.
“We have an obligation to see through accountability as the authorizer,” Kloth said. “When we fail to do that, we aren’t meeting the promise of school choice.”
The struggle to move on
The 2012 Project School closing was especially acrimonious. Shannon and her kids witnessed their principal and teachers surrounded by news crews with tough questions about the school’s poor test scores and financial troubles. They watched a series of efforts to try to save the school fail, and their friends emptied out to new schools.
“It all happened so fast, and we felt really powerless as parents,” Shannon said. “It felt very numb for awhile.”
Then the dust settled, and the Shannons enrolled their daughters at Crooked Creek Elementary in Washington Township.
They missed their friends, but the girls’ transition was mostly smooth until a bitter, wintry day less than six months later.
Once again, her daughters saw news trucks surrounding their school as she picked them up. There had been a shooting that afternoon at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and reporters were seeking to interview local families for their reaction.
But the scene felt familiar to Leah and Stella for a different reason: their first instinct was to ask if their new school was closing, too.
Two years later, Shannon thinks the girls learned some lessons from an otherwise bad experience.
“It opened their eyes to things I wasn’t quite ready for them to be open to,” she said. “It’s made them more resilient. I just don’t want it to squish their optimism or the hope that they can make a difference.”