Indiana

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Parents Rally To Save The Project School After Mayor Says He'll Revoke Charter

Parents and students packed The Project School in Indianapolis for an emergency school board meeting Wednesday afternoon. Mayor Greg Ballard's office announced Tuesday it planned to close the school, citing poor academic performance and academic struggles.

Parents of students who attend The Project School in Indianapolis reacted with frustration and anger Wednesday after the school board outlined what would happen if the mayor’s office revoked its charter.

“Come to find out my son is autistic. He’s not a bad child. He’s autistic.”
—Sherice Ezel, parent 

Board members learned Tuesday afternoon that Mayor Greg Ballard intended to close the school after just 29 percent of students passed the spring ISTEP+ test in both math and English. In a prepared statement, Ballard said the school was struggling financially and had mismanaged federal funds.

But parent Sherice Ezel says what The Project School does can’t be measured in standardized test scores. Her son was accepted to the school after Indianapolis Public Schools had kicked him out.

“My son has tore up this school,” Ezel told a packed house at Wednesday’s board meeting. She says teachers and administrators from The Project School asked if they could test her son for learning disabilities. “Come to find out my son is autistic. He’s not a bad child. He’s autistic.”

Parents and students arrived at Wednesday's emergency school board meetings holding homemade signs. Throughout the meeting, they cheered and chanted, 'Save our school!'

Ezel says with the right therapies and interventions, her son is now receiving good grades.

Many students at The Project School are like Ezel’s son – they haven’t succeeded in regular school, but they’ve thrived here.

But Rachel Maxwell, the parent of three students who she says are performing at grade level, points out the school doesn’t just serve troubled students. She says many parents elect to send their kids there because they recognize school is more than just test scores.

“It teaches them everyday you are surrounded by people who do not come from the same background,” she said.

Board members told parents at Wednesday’s meeting that they would fight to save the school, which opened four years ago.

Tarrance Banks, the school’s co-founder, said he’d like to talk to the mayor about a timeline for improving students’ performance on standardized tests–one that acknowledges the challenges teachers face when educating many students who haven’t succeeded in other schools.

The notice comes just weeks before school was scheduled to start and, according to Banks, blind-sighted school staff. In an email to the school community, Banks said his last communication with the director of they city’s charter schools indicated there was nothing to worry about and that the board would receive results of the four-year review this fall.

“The timeline is really devastating to our school community,” said Daniel Baron, president of the board. “It was set up so the decision would be made the day after school starts, on August 7.”

Baron told parents that contrary to what the mayor’s office reported, the school was in good financial standing and had just received an external audit from Old National Bank. He says allegations that the school failed to meet payroll obligations aren’t true and there might be some confusion because the school recently switched from a 26 to a 24 pay period calendar.

The Indianapolis Business Journal reports the notice of revocation from the mayor’s office cites concerns with how The Project School spent federal grants. The Indiana State Board of Accounts found the school may have used money intended for facilities and planning to pay salaries and other operational expenses. (You can read the full report, including The Project School’s response, here.)

Board members planned to meet with Ballard Thursday to plead their case, but Scott Elliott of The Indianapolis Star writes it’s “unlikely” the school will be allowed to stay open. The mayor’s office is already planning an enrollment fair next week for parents and students who will be affected by the school’s closing.

“Other schools will be recruiting our students,” Baron told StateImpact. “Our teachers’ lives are obviously in upheaval.”

This is the second time Ballard has revoked a school’s charter. After the mayor announced he would close Fountain Square Academy in the spring, the school found a new sponsor and remains open. But it’s too late for The Project School to do the same thing before school starts in August.

A sister school in Bloomington is chartered through Ball State University. Students there posted much better scores on the ISTEP+ — 68 percent passed both the English and math tests, just shy of the state average of 71 percent.

Teachers from the Bloomington school drove to Indianapolis Wednesday to show their support.

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