A tale of two schools

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Since the first Indianapolis charter school opened in 2002, an advertising campaign of billboards and summer mailbox brochures has been targeted at consumers of public education. With more than 20 charters to choose from this fall, many parents are pleased with the widening school selection. However, because 14 Indianapolis Public Schools have closed in just two years, another set of parents see their choices dwindling.

Before summer break, I visited two Indianapolis schools set apart by miles and experience. One is finishing its first year. The other is finished, closing its doors forever. They seem like good places to find what's gained and what's lost in the public school marketplace.

Giving families another choice

A group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders sit on the carpeted floor of their Indianapolis classroom. Bent over the paperbacks in their hands, they discuss Three Cups of Tea. In their young adult version of the New York Times best-seller, an American man determines to help a Pakistani village build a school. After several students volunteer their thoughts about the story, their teacher asks them to consider the man's relationship with the villagers.

"The man from America, after he sees how kind they are to him, he wants to pay them back with a school," she explains. "But how can he do it? When he has trouble, who does he turn to?" One child suggests that the man got money for the school from a rich man back in America. But the teacher has another lesson in mind. She reminds the class that the man turned to the people. "He literally says, 'I need your help.'"

"It takes a village ... " resonates throughout their book talk, and, to an extent, in the real life story of their own Indianapolis school. Here, "the man" is Principal Tarrey Banks and the "village" is Martindale-Brightwood, a predominantly African-American, lower-income neighborhood on Indianapolis' Northeastside.

Martindale-Brightwood is not the rural setting of Three Cups of Tea. Although one of its neighboring schools closed in 2008, due to the Indianapolis Public Schools' overall declining enrollment, area children had other public schools to attend. There's even a free, IPS-run Montessori school nearby. Banks, however, wanted to give local families another choice.

Banks opened The Project School with 180 students, the city's 21st charter school and the 17th to be sponsored by the Mayor's Office. Half of its families live nearby, with the other half spread out around the city and even one family commuting from Carmel. (Full disclosure: NUVO Managing Editor Jim Poyser's wife, Patricia Wildhack, teaches at The Project School.)

As its name implies, Project embraces the teaching method in which student-driven projects fuel learning across different subject areas. The school's wider framework emphasizes three P's: project, problem and place. Its founders believe that when student work focuses on real-life problems in real communities, children will see themselves and their school as forces for change.

"I came out of student teaching knowing I wanted to do something different," recalls the 33-year-old Banks, as he stirs chocolate milk into his coffee on a May morning. After graduating from Butler University, he taught in a charter school in Colorado, exploring the possibilities of outdoor education. He came home to teach at IPS' Key Learning Community, impressed by how children there made connections between their talents, their interests and their school. "Without these two [schools]," Banks says, "I wouldn't be sitting here."

Wearing a long-sleeved Project School T-shirt, Banks is sitting on a folding chair on the unfinished second floor of his school at 22nd and Yandes, just east of the Monon Trail. We are surrounded by a patchwork of cement and plaster left over from the building's former life as a car factory.

He chose the site after meeting the building's owner, Mike Higbee, president of Martindale on the Monon Development and now a member of The Project School board. Higbee and Banks agree that developing the area means adding to it without taking from it. Higbee rehabs abandoned houses and old industrial sites and builds on empty lots without pushing out families who have lived here for generations.

Debt service for construction was $225,000 the first year, a figure that will go up as they renovate the second floor. Charter schools get general funds from the state, as district schools do, but no capital or transportation funds.

Like the man in the story, Banks needed help. As a charter school, Project qualified for a $279,000 per year federal implementation grant for two years. In addition, it received a $250,000 start-up grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The Wal-Mart people have targeted Arkansas and 30 school districts nationwide for charter school funding.

"Traditional public school was not for me, being bound by things not relevant to kids -- pacing guide, textbooks," explains Banks, who is known to his students as Mr. Tarrey. "We're teaching them to be activists. We're trying to give them a voice."

Banks interrupts himself and leaves to greet a family considering Project's sister school, opening this fall in Bloomington. I am free to stroll downstairs where the classrooms are decorated in calming taupe and white, hanging quilts of purple and red, and tiny tables and chairs. Huge paned windows let in sunlight, while hall windows allow passersby to observe teachers and children. Shelves filled with letter tiles and beads suggest the hands-on teaching methods of Maria Montessori. Low desks hold Macintosh computers, which the early 20th century educational innovator could not have imagined a use for.

In one shared kindergarten/first grade classroom, black and white photos of a church, a water tower and an electrical transformer are taped to a curved wall. One of the classroom's two assistant teachers informs me that students took the photos on a walk around the neighborhood. Afterward, the class discussed what they had seen and what those structures mean to their community.

Project's outdoor courtyard is taking shape, too. In a daily class called Passions, one group of children has been building and painting picnic tables and planters for weeks. Passions is based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of "flow," in which children seek an activity that so consumes them that they lose all sense of time, even space. During Passions, which Banks adapted from his five years with the Key school, Project students can choose among art, music, dance, building, technology and nature studies.

Lemonade from lemons

It's still May and, a few days later, I visit another school and another man. Housed among working class bungalows on Indianapolis' Southside is IPS' Otis E. Brown School, named after a World War I hero but known mostly as School 20. Sitting behind his broad desk acquitted neatly in suspenders and tie, 31-year-old DaJuan Major seems content with, if overdressed for, his current mission: squeezing lemonade out of some seriously tart lemons.

Major began his first year as an IPS principal last August. He walked in the door knowing the school's poverty rate was 86 percent and a third of his students were "ESL," Hispanic children learning English as a second language. Like him, they were new to School 20. Their previous school had closed along with seven other IPS schools in the spring of 2008. None of them would have guessed that School 20 would be next.

In October 2008, IPS announced plans to close School 20 and five more IPS schools by spring 2009. Again, the district's declining enrollment was to blame.

"From a business standpoint, we understand why," Major says. Even with 325 students, School 20 was operating below its capacity. And the 1920s building required $4.3 million in renovations. Still, he says, "The closing is devastating to the community."

"They are breaking up more than they know," says parent Esther Mains in the Parent Center down the hall from the principal's office. Her two older children graduated from School 20 and, when her youngest started in the new preschool last fall, Mains got swept up in the small but tight-knit group of volunteers who spend most of their children's school days there.

As third-graders file in to drop off their text books for packing, Mains and fellow parents Tracy Dulworth and Ginny Reed describe a list of special activities -- Dr. Seuss Day, Field Day, the Santa Shop, the Ma and Pa Shop and Peace Picnic -- that make School 20 sound more like a suburban school than an urban one. The women regularly go on field trips with their children and with the classes whose parents can't make it. On the other side of the book stacks, a teacher's voice calls out, "They're lifesavers."

The parents explain that the school has changed the community, not just the students, because of something called Project Peace. Thirteen years ago, School 20 piloted this Department of Education conflict resolution program for IPS. Social worker Jane Zobel, who's been with the school for 15 years, says, "It changed the whole climate of our school."

"He took my pen." "She said my mother is ugly." Instead of allowing student feuds to derail their lessons, School 20 teachers invite children to settle their differences through peer mediation. Each morning, a team of trained fifth- and sixth-grade mediators head out to classrooms. They listen to student complaints and then read from a script of leading questions: What happened? What could you have done differently? What can you do now?

"Kids just want to be heard," Zobel says. With Project Peace, fewer children took that dreaded walk to the principal's office. Suspensions went down. Neighborhood families reported less fighting after school. "We emphasize in Project Peace that nobody is to blame. We just want to work it out."

As part of Project Peace, School 20 hosted a mixer this fall to help new and old students get to know each other. "We had kids sit with kids they didn't know and we gave them questions to ask each other," Zobel explains. "'What country did you come from?' 'Where did your parents come from?' And then I talked to them about how we all fit together. These kinds of activities have always helped our children."

Back in the Parent Center, Reed expresses the loss families and staff feel. "I bought my house here to go to this school." Reed has a prosthetic leg and doesn't drive. She's not sure if she will be able to volunteer when her youngest commutes to School 114 by school bus. Still, she counsels Dulworth to help out at School 39, where Dulworth's son is assigned. "If you work at the new school, it will help Jacob."

IPS assigned Mains' son to School 114, too, but she won't be there. Mains registered her for kindergarten at a charter school that's closer to home.

A tale of two schools

The Project School and School 20 are so far apart on the city map that they may not seem like competitors, but they are. Indiana's general education fund, which pays for salaries and programs, is divided among districts and charter schools by an annual student head count.

For decades, the Indianapolis school district has been losing families and funding to surrounding township and suburban districts. Since the opening of the first Indianapolis charter school in 2002, IPS has lost 4,000 more students to charters, not counting kindergarteners and new residents who went straight to charters. Last year, the student head count was 34,000 for IPS and 7,000 for area charter schools.

In June, the struggle for funds became more pronounced when the Indiana General Assembly went into a special session to balance the state budget. Due to the economic downturn, Gov. Mitch Daniels vowed to cut spending across the board, even in education. How would the shrinking revenue be divided among districts and charters?

Going into the special session, IPS had just laid off 300 teachers and anticipated losing $77 million in revenue over the next three years, in part because of the enrollment decline. In the past, the district received a "reghoster" to offset enrollment dips. Acting as a sort of cushion, the reghoster delayed funding cuts to declining districts for five years with the understanding that many operating expenses don't immediately decrease when enrollment does.

When the budget finally passed at the end of June, the reghoster was renewed, but was reduced to three years. The district is using federal stimulus money to recall laid off teachers.

The biggest legislative win for charter schools was the failure of a proposed charter cap. Districts like IPS and Gary, which have a much higher concentration of charters than outlying areas, wanted the caps, but charter advocates say the charter movement would have been unfairly frozen.

Expanding charter funding to include capital and transportation funds was not on the legislative table this year, but charters did receive the addition of technology funds and the go-ahead to start virtual charter schools.

"It's not us versus them," says Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, of charters and district schools. He notes that IPS loses far more students to township and suburban areas, when families move, than to charters. He adds that charter schools pull students from private schools and other charters, not just district schools.

Open competition is at the crux of the charter school model and, Simnick would argue, its success. "By having to compete for students, for teachers, and to get parents to invest their time, you have to have a good product," he explains.

Charter supporters say their schools are better, because they are freed from district bureaucracies and rigid union rules. Charters may design their own curriculums and hire teachers without four-year education degrees. These freedoms lead to innovation, they say, which will in turn inspire more innovation in districts.

Simnick points to the diversity of methods in area charter schools, from The Project School to a Lawrence charter high school created especially for students in alcohol and drug addition recovery. He looks forward to a "green" elementary school that will have its own windmill when it opens in 2010 -- the founders chose a near Northeastside location after IPS closed a school there.

Mary Louise Bewley, IPS' director of school and community relations, isn't convinced that charter schools offer a better product, warning parents to check the test data before making the leap to a new school. Neither does she see much innovation. Except for three local charter schools that she praises, she says, "They're just replicating."

Bewley sees little difference, for example, between charters Flanner School and Irvington Community School from their neighboring IPS schools. And The Project School has much in common with four existing IPS schools -- the two Key Community School campuses, plus the project-oriented Center for Inquiry downtown and CFI's newer Northside spin-off.

Bewley doubts Banks' product is as good as the IPS originals. IPS planned the second CFI with great care, she says, populating it with half the staff from the first. Opening a school, Bewley says, "is not a simple matter of putting a shingle out in front."

Recent local research has fueled both sides of the charter-district debate.

A 2008 Indiana University study, sponsored by the Indiana General Assembly, concluded that there is no difference in student achievement between charters and their surrounding districts. Researchers also found that while on average Indiana charters have a higher number of students living in poverty, generally charters here serve fewer special education students and students with limited English proficiency.

The University of Indiana also released a study, this one commissioned by Indiana Black Expo, the Indianapolis Urban League and the DeHaan Family Foundation, a charter school sponsor. When measuring student achievement among charter school students and their district school peers over a two-year period, researchers concluded that achievement grew faster in charters.

As a teacher of teachers at the Indiana University School of Education, professor Robert J. Helfenbein Jr. watches the district-charter debate with growing concern. Though an IU colleague is involved with The Project School, Helfenbein doesn't think the market method can replace the democratic method.

"If we've been following the economy the last six months, it's crazy," says Helfenbein, referring to the economic meltdown that has gripped the country and the globe. "Do you want to trust your children to these forces?"

Helfenbein says that the market model has allowed the creation of some fantastic charter schools, alongside some mediocre and even negligent ones. Each charter opens its doors with a promise to perform, but there is no master plan or single oversight board with publicly elected officials. What if a school doesn't perform?

Charter schools, like their district counterparts, are judged by student achievement on standardized tests and can be penalized for poor scores according to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Charter advocates would add that charters can be closed down much faster than district schools.

"Any business model has an acceptable loss, but what's an acceptable loss to a fifth-grader?" asks Helfenbein, if the child spends years in an inept charter school? Or attends a good one that is closed due to fiscal mismanagement?

Like Project School's Tarrey Banks, Helfenbein wants teachers to help students find their voices. He wants students and their parents to engage in the democratic process by speaking up at community meetings, in the media and to their government. By contrast, the market model allows parents to "vote" with their feet, to leave a school they don't like.

"The fear is that we create a dumping ground," Helfenbein says of left-behind schools whose remaining families don't want to leave the neighborhood or don't know how to. Helfenbein worries that children in these schools may need the most and get less: bigger class sizes under a shrinking district budget.

"It comes back to a democratic society," Helfenbein says. "There is a limit to self interest."

In IPS, Helfenbein sees the good and bad schools, brilliant teachers and ineffective ones. He also sees a growing attachment to the market model. Magnet schools that draw students from across several neighborhoods were created years ago as part of a federal program to desegregate schools. Helfenbein worries that now magnet programs are more about skimming engaged students and parents out of community schools and into niche educational programs, more like charter schools.

A farewell

Two weeks before School 20 closes for good, they have another sort of mixer, a farewell Open House. English-Spanish translators mill the hallways with current and former School 20 families.

Outside the gym, a dark-haired girl named Ashley throws her arm around a fair-haired boy she identifies as her best friend. Ashley is an ESL student who, due to the IPS school closings, will soon attend her third school in as many years. Her friend lives within a different school boundary, so this is good-bye.

Inside the gym, the school secretary reads her well-researched history of the school. In its horse and buggy days in another building, she says, classes were taught in German. The next speaker, a former vice principal, closes his remarks by trying to convince School 20 families and teachers that the old saying is true: When one door closes, another one will open.

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