IBJ: New ‘Superman’ fellowship hoping to start local charter schools

Hoping to capture momentum from the new high-profile education reform documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” the GEO Foundation is using a $100,000 grant to fund a “Superman” fellowship to launch charter schools in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis-based GEO, which describes itself as an incubator of charter schools, already operates four charters, two of them in Indianapolis. But CEO Kevin Teasley thinks expanding the number of charter schools in Indianapolis is key to reforming public education in general.

Charter schools are public schools and receive more than $7,000 in state funding from Indiana for every student they enroll. However, charters are freed from some local and state restrictions, and none of the 49 charters in Indiana has unionized teachers.

“Instead of waiting for Superman, we’re going to fund, hopefully, an allegiance of supermen,” said Teasley. The $100,000 grant, given by a local venture capitalist Teasley declined to name, would pay for one or two people to spend a year developing a plan for a new charter school.

Teasley said he will need to raise $100,000 a year to keep the fellowship program going.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” hit Indianapolis movie theaters on Friday. Three invitation-only screenings and after-film discussions hosted this week at the Landmark Cinema are expected to draw 700 people.

The movie tells the stories of five children whose parents are trying to get them admitted to charter schools to escape what the movie depicts as failing traditional public schools. The documentary is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for directing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Charter schools have been controversial in Indiana since they were approved by the state Legislature in 2001. Many traditional public school leaders have argued that charters drain students and resources from the schools trying to educate the most difficult populations of students.

But supporters of charters, including Teasley, contend that charters meet strong parent demand for alternatives—and have forced traditional public schools to improve themselves.

The presence of charter schools in Indianapolis has also helped to convince education reform programs such as Teach for America, the New Teacher Project and College Summit to start chapters here, Teasley said.

“The marketplace for education reform needs to be developed,” Teasley said. “We need more buyers of these reform programs. In order to get more buyers we need to seed the developers.

Teasley said GEO’s Superman Fellow would not be required to follow GEO’s charter model, but could pick from other “proven successful” charter models.

GEO is accepting applications for the Fellowship through the end of the year. It is specially pitching the fellowship to local participants in Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

The first fellow will be selected early next year.

The Superman Fellowship is similar to the Education Entreprenuership Fellowship sponsored by Indianapolis-based The Mind Trust. Those fellows are paid a salary for two years to develop a project to improve public schools in Indianapolis that can be replicated in other school districts around the country. Also, the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools Fellowship offers one year of pay to start an urban charter school.

By J.K. Wall, Indianapolis Business Journal


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