NWI TIMES: Charter school landscape becoming vast in short time

A dozen charter schools are operating in Northwest Indiana, with seven in Gary and one in Porter County. Two more are scheduled to open next year — Heritage Institute of Arts and Technology, which wants to locate in Merrillville, and Gary Middle College.

Of the 14 applications the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University has received, three are for Northwest Indiana. The new Indiana Charter School Board, which also can approve charter schools, has 15 applications, none for Northwest Indiana.

Nevertheless, charter school proponents don’t think the market is overcrowded.

Kevin Teasley, president of the Indianapolis-based Geo Foundation, which manages 21st Century Charter School in Gary, characterized it as an “extremely competitive market,” offering numerous options for parents.

Teasley said religious schools were losing students as a result of the economy, with every Catholic school in Gary closed. With Indiana’s new voucher program, qualifying families can send their children to the school of their choice with a state payment that offsets tuition at participating schools, provided the students can pass academic muster. As a result, Teasley believes families will return to religious schools.

“I don’t think the market is saturated, but it’s becoming very competitive even for charter schools. It’s going to put everyone on their toes,” he said.

Still, state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, believes the market is oversaturated, particularly in Gary.

He said few of the charter schools are performing any better than traditional public schools, based on test scores.

“Until you get to the root of the problem, you’re not going to see any differences. It goes to the socioeconomic status of these kids. We have a situation in urban communities where parents don’t value education the way they used to. We have to change that,” Smith said. He said schools are successful because parents are involved.

Teasley’s Geo Foundation will open Gary Middle College in fall 2012, using the same building as its successful 21st Century Charter School, for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Middle College will be an afternoon program geared to about 100 students who have dropped out of school. It hopes to hire a principal by early next year.

Teasley said Geo Foundation has connected with Heritage Institute of Arts and Technology, and hopes to open that charter school in Merrillville in fall 2012.

Heritage President and CEO Darlene Henderson said the school, which had been associated with Chicago-based American Quality Schools, didn’t open this fall because it had neither financing nor a location. It had planned to open at 620-640 W. 81st Ave. in Merrillville but didn’t get zoning approval.

Lakeside Charter Academy, which was to be the third charter school in East Chicago, withdrew its application, said Bob Marra, executive director of Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools.

The local applications submitted to Ball State are from a group headed by Dawn Greene for Cornerstone Academy of Technology, another represented by Augusta DeNeal for the Northwest Indiana STEM Academy and a submission from the nonprofit Neighbors Educational Opportunities Inc., which hopes to open a high school. Neighbors formed when Portage Township Schools decided it no longer could afford to sponsor its longtime adult education program.

Despite a lot of C grades for charter schools from the Indiana Department of Education, local charter school officials contend their schools are showing steady improvement.

Geo’s 21st Century Charter in Gary, for instance, earned an A, or exemplary rating, from the state this year. Discovery Charter in Gary earned a B, or commendable rating, in its first year.

Although East Chicago Lighthouse Charter earned a C, Principal Krysten Ivy Wendell pointed to the school’s ISTEP-Plus test scores saying it is showing progress.

“I’m a big proponent of the small school model. We’re a family here. I know every child, every cousin and all the parents,” Wendell said.

Juan Gardner, principal of the ninth- and 10th-graders at West Gary Lighthouse Charter, said they had a slight dip in scores this year because of an influx of new ninth-graders and the special education population. He said the school has great teachers who promote project-based work.

Parent Carol Walker, of East Chicago, has two children at East Chicago Lighthouse. She said she believes teachers spend considerable time with students and are “invested” in each youngster’s education. She said her 18-year-old son dropped out of East Chicago Central High School and she believes if he had been in a charter school, he might have earned his diploma.


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