Nearly eight years after Indiana seized three struggling campuses from Indianapolis Public Schools, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to hand the schools back, bringing to a close a turnaround experiment that sparked enduring change in the state’s largest district. 

The dramatic decision, which passed 6-2, is a significant shift from the state board’s longstanding support for Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based manager hired to improve the schools. It’s also an implicit vote of confidence in Indianapolis Public Schools, a district that has redefined its reputation through its collaboration with charter schools.

The vote means that Thomas Carr Howe High School will likely close. Meanwhile, Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School and Emmerich Manual High School are poised to become innovation schools, managed by charter operators under Indianapolis Public Schools oversight. A local charter school, Christel House Academy South, will move into the Manual building and serve the current students. The district will choose a new operator for Donnan.

Ending takeover: Indiana officials end takeover of Roosevelt, returning it to the troubled Gary district

In the days before the vote, Charter Schools USA scrambled to maintain control of the campuses. The network had hoped to get another chance to win charters to continue running the schools, even after their applications were rejected by the state charter board in December. The group reached out to a second authorizer, asked the state to grant them a year-long extension, and appealed to families from the schools to show their support for the operator at Wednesday’s board of education meeting. 

But in the end, Charter Schools USA and its allies were unable to prevent the board from choosing what had become the most expedient way of ending the takeover — handing control of the troubled schools back to the district from which they had been severed.

Before the vote, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson made the case to the State Board of Education that the district would immediately roll out a plan for the students and schools.

“We don’t come to you today lightly,” Johnson said. “We, alongside with our partners, are the only organization coming to you today with an explicit plan that can definitively be executed upon that we believe will serve students well.”

Students, parents, and teachers need “some certainty,” said board member Pete Miller after the meeting. The district plan means they “know what we’re going to do starting in the fall.”  

“The vote today was not a repudiation of any of the work done by the turnaround operator,” Miller said.

The meeting was a watershed moment in the history of state takeover. In addition to returning the three schools to Indianapolis Public Schools, the board voted 10-0 to end the state takeover of Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary, which was seized at the same time as the Indianapolis campuses. The campus will be handed back to Gary Community Schools, which is also under state takeover, after this school year.

The Indianapolis schools have had mixed performance under Charter Schools USA’s management. Donnan and Manual both have seen their state letter grades rise, and the three schools outperform many district schools on state tests. But enrollment at the campuses dramatically shrunk after the state takeover and has not fully rebounded. 

For the students at the schools, however, keeping them with Charter Schools USA offered the promise of stability. At public meetings, students, and teachers spoke about how much they love the schools, the close relationships they had, and the positive outcomes for students who had been struggling. Returning the schools to Indianapolis Public Schools means breaking up those communities and forcing students to undergo dramatic and disruptive changes. 

For some Howe students, it will be the second time that they have been forced to find a new school. Junior Alainna Tuyub said that she also watched as her first school, Broad Ripple High School, was closed down by the district. 

“Howe has shown me that school is not just a requirement but an opportunity — a gateway to the rest of my life after high school,” Tuyub said. “Howe is family. We succeed as a family, and sometimes we even take losses as a family, but all is worthwhile because we do it together.” 

Jeff Breeding, whose son is a senior at Manual, has shown up at several meetings in support of Charter Schools USA. 

“It’s really sad that they gave it back to IPS, which failed so many times, miserably, for 10 years,” he said after the vote. Breeding, who is also a baseball coach at the school, said even though his own son is graduating, he cares about the other students on the team. “The rest of them kids are like my own. They don’t want to go anywhere else.”

After the vote, Sherry Hage, who has led the Indianapolis turnaround work for Charter Schools USA and now as the leader of the nonprofit handling day-to-day operations at the schools, issued a written statement describing the decision as a “heartbreaking” loss for the “the most vulnerable students in Indianapolis.”

“This decision marks an unprecedented move backward for the most at-risk children in Indianapolis,” she continued. “Although IPS has given up on these kids multiple times, we will review our options and never give up on serving our students, giving them the hope and encouragement for success they so desperately need.”

It had seemed as though Charter Schools USA would easily win permanent control of the schools when the state board voted last March to instruct the operator to seek charters to continue running the campuses after the takeover ended. 

But the organization encountered several pitfalls over the last 10 months. 

A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that graduation rates at Howe and Manual exclude many students who left without earning diplomas because they were labeled as leaving to home-school, even though the students weren’t necessarily continuing their education at home. When students are labeled as leaving to home-school, instead of being listed as dropping out, they are removed from graduation calculations — a practice that can boost graduation rates.

In 2019, the graduation rate at Manual fell 21 percentage points from the previous year to 57%, after a state audit found the school did not have the proper documentation for many of the students designated as leaving to home-school.

In a presentation Wednesday, state board staff cited the Chalkbeat investigation as one of the key factors that had changed in the months since the board initially instructed Charter Schools USA to seek charters, after a community task force’s recommendation that the network maintain control of the campuses. 

“That investigation is important because the task force relied heavily on the schools’ performance ratings that are obviously heavily influenced by the schools’ overall graduation rates,” said Ron Sandlin, senior director of school performance and transformation. 

Indianapolis Public Schools began a campaign to win back the takeover campuses under new Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. Officials raised questions over what would happen to debt if the district transferred the school buildings to a new manager. And the district cut ties with Charter Schools USA, which it had partnered with to open the elementary school at Donnan, and said it planned to select another manager, based in Indiana, for the school — either Phalen Leadership Academies, which runs several Indianapolis schools, or a new charter operator called Adelante Schools

But perhaps Indianapolis Public Schools’ most important step was finding a new, politically powerful ally. In December, the district announced that if the schools were returned to its control, it would give the Manual building to Christel House Academy, an influential Indianapolis charter network that would relocate its entire south side school to the campus and become an innovation school.

A final blow came from the Indiana Charter School Board. Although it had backing from the State Board of Education, Charter Schools USA would need support from a charter authorizer to keep control of the schools. But in December, the charter board voted 4-3 against granting the charters

The state charter board rejection returned the future of the schools to the State Board of Education, setting up the vote Wednesday to return control of the campuses to the district. 

Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.