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IPS Superintendent: Charter Schools USA Fails to Meet Partnership Standards

Note: This column by IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson originally appeared in the Dec. 1 edition of The Indianapolis Star.

Aleesia Johnson

A relentless pursuit of excellence is the foundation of our mission to provide families with access to quality education. We set high standards for everyone who works for, and with, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). Our students deserve it, and our culture demands it.

The district’s Portfolio of Schools Model features collaborations with several conscientious and strong education partners. All of these partners know they will be held to the highest possible standards while also participating in a continuous and exhaustive review process.

Indianapolis Public Schools has high expectations for the academic rigor, financial transparency, enrollment sustainability and overall governance health for Innovation Network Schools.

Unfortunately, Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), our Innovation Network School operator at Emma Donnan Elementary School, has failed to perform its responsibilities to our standards.

Despite the investment during the past several years by IPS, leveraging both the time of our staff and other district resources, the Innovation school partnership with CSUSA for Emma Donnan Elementary School was terminated in November by a unanimous vote of our Board of School Commissioners.

Please note: Emma Donnan will not close, and IPS is committed to its future. In fact, we stand ready to initiate the process of selecting a new Innovation school partner with the input of the Emma Donnan community as part of this process.

In order to begin executing this process, in the coming week, we will ask the Indiana State Board of Education to place all grade levels of the school under IPS’ purview so we can seek a path forward for excellence.

As a district, it is our responsibility to provide clarity to students, parents and faculty about this change and why it is necessary. We understand they are caught in the middle, but we cannot abrogate our duty to ensure our schools are operated by partners who operate with honesty and integrity.

This is the first Innovation agreement where the operator’s performance has merited termination. Make no mistake, Indianapolis Public Schools will hold our partners accountable and, if required, we will sever ties in the best interests of our students.

The facts are that CSUSA’s tenure at Emma Donnan is littered with high staff turnover, declining enrollment and a proposed future governance structure that was not clearly communicated or understood even by members of that proposed future team.

The past few months have seen tremendous progress in the district’s investment in the future not only of our students, but also our workforce.

Recently, and as a result of tremendous community support for two successful referendums in 2018, we awarded our teachers the largest pay increases in the history of IPS. These raises, along with investment in stronger security measures, represent promises made and promises kept.

We made our case to the voters based on a renewed strength in the district, a stronger financial model and improved academics. Our Innovation Network School initiative is an important part of all these positive changes and is an exceedingly popular offering in our education portfolio.

Our IPS Board of School Commissioners has acted to ensure our standards for our partner schools are met. Our hope is that other entities with impending decisions on the horizon will do the same.

Our team remains extremely concerned about the future of Thomas Carr Howe High School and Emmerich Manual High School. While I don’t doubt that there are hard-working staff serving the students who attend those schools, what is also true are the very real questions that exist about the actual performance of those schools based on recent revelations regarding the graduation cohorts of these schools. Additionally, there remain significant questions regarding the legality of CSUSA being able to buy or rent those facilities for $1 if granted charters. I will not accept putting Indianapolis Public Schools in a precarious financial circumstance that we are currently working diligently to address.

We know and understand deeply that schools are such valuable parts of our community and, if returned to our IPS family, we would explore all viable opportunities for these schools and their students.

As superintendent, I take seriously the responsibility of ensuring IPS is an excellent family of schools that offers students the very best foundation to live successful futures. We work relentlessly toward that vision every day, and we believe we will realize it with strong and high-quality partners alongside us. It is our belief that Charter Schools USA simply does not meet that standard.