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Howe, Manual Could Become Charter Schools After Takeover Ends But IPS Warns of Financial Pitfalls

Thomas Carr Howe High School

Thomas Carr Howe High School (Courtesy Photo)

Two Indianapolis high schools under state intervention could become charter schools instead of facing closure, the State Board of Education decided Wednesday, despite concerns raised by Indianapolis Public Schools.

Eight years ago the board made the controversial decision to sever Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools from IPS after years of chronic academic failure. The state hired Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based private company known as CSUSA, to manage the schools.

Wednesday the board ordered CSUSA to seek charters to independently run the schools when its status as takeover schools ends in mid-2020.

But Aleesia Johnson, IPS interim superintendent, warned that complicated financial issues with the Howe and Manual buildings could negatively impact the district. An attempt to delay Wednesday's vote by a month was shot down.

Law allows the buildings, following the end of state intervention, to be turned over to a charter organizer in a sale for $1. IPS is worried it could be left to shoulder years of bond debt on the buildings.

David Freitas, a state board member, urged the board to vote and let attorneys figure out any concerns with the buildings' debt. He described the takeover as a "success story" said CSUA should be free to seek its charter authorization.

"It is an amazing transformation. Moving schools from F to a C ... is only part of the story," Freitas said referencing the state's A-F accountability scale grade for the schools. "The key part of this story is the culture change in the schools."

Manual has been rated a C for two consecutive years. Howe remains rated F since the takeover began in 2012 yet school leaders say it's expected to earn a higher grade next year due to a record graduation rate and student growth score on state tests.

Emma Donnan Middle School, a third school was also taken over but not part of Wednesday's vote, jumped from F to C for the first time last year.

A task force created by the state board sought input from community members about the future of the schools. Through a series of meetings and online votes, the task force recommended the charter conversion -- one of four options laid out in state law.

Another option was to return the schools to IPS. Until Wednesday's board meeting IPS  maintained it would close the schools as part of a larger school consolidation plan for high schools. Johnson said the district has rethought its past stance and was open to conversations about how the buildings could be used.

But that change did little to move the board's majority.

Now the board is ordering Charter Schools USA, or CSUSA, to seek approval from an Indiana charter authorizer to run the schools free of intervention starting in mid-2020.

Emma Donnan Middle School, is on course to become part of the IPS district as an "innovation school" in mid-2020 and remain under CSUSA management.

CSUSA is expected to hand over the management of the schools to Noble Education Initiative, or NEI, a nonprofit offshoot of the company run by its former academic leader Sherry Hage. NEI has managed the operations of the three schools for about two years.

Letters of intent for the charters has been filed with the Indiana Charter Schools Board. The board said an application was expected to be fled following Wednesday's vote by the state education board.

The Indiana Charter Schools Board is scheduled to meet March 12. The board would determine if there is an adequate academic and financial plan to operate Howe and Manual.

In 2011, for the first time, the State Board of Education voted to take control of five schools: Howe, Manual, Emma Donnan, another former IPS school, Arlington Community High School, and Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary.

Since then, Arlington was returned to IPS in 2015 after a failed turnaround effort by local charter school company Tindley Accelerated Schools. Arlington was eventually closed this summer as part of a high school consolidation plan.

Roosevelt’s operator, EdisonLearning, signed a joint operating agreement with Gary Community Schools in 2017 to run the school.

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