The approval of Fort Wayne’s fifth charter school raises both hopes and concerns for public education in northeast Indiana: hope because the Smith Academy for Excellence, as an all-boys school, is the first area charter offering true innovation; concern because its sponsor has no experience in overseeing a charter school.
The Indiana General Assembly approved a law last year granting charter authority to all Indiana colleges, not just the state’s public universities. Grace College and Theological Seminary is among the first to take advantage of the new authority. It approved the Smith Academy’s charter last week.
But Ball State University, more than 10 times the size of Grace College, struggled in its first decade of overseeing charter schools. It is only recently showing evidence of effective oversight. In opening charter oversight to Grace and other small colleges, lawmakers have entrusted tremendous responsibility for students’ learning and tens of thousands in tax dollars to entities over which they themselves have no oversight.
Thomas Smith, a former Fort Wayne Community Schools administrator, proposed the school, which he will lead along with his sons, Corey Smith as chief academic officer and Cameron Smith as chief operations officer. The charter school board includes an experienced public educator, namely Hans Sheridan, another former FWCS administrator. The school also has ties to Leona Group LLC, the for-profit education management organization run by former FWCS superintendent William Coats. Leona manages the Timothy L. Johnson Academy, Fort Wayne’s first charter school.
The experienced educators will serve the school well while its structure – as the region’s only all-boys public school – offers the innovation proponents promised when the charter law was approved in 2001. The overwhelming majority of schools opened since 2001 have been kindergarten to grade 5 or K-8 schools replicating existing neighborhood schools. Not surprisingly, they haven’t fared much better than or even as well as traditional schools.
The Smith Academy, set to open with grades 6-9, might well have a performance advantage. A 2008 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Education found more positive academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students in the single-sex schools than in the comparison coed schools, although it found greater benefits for girls than for boys.
The more significant concerns about the proposed charter school lie with its authorizer. Grace College, affiliated with the evangelical Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, has an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,200. While it has a school of education, it has no experience overseeing charter schools.
And there are troubling signs of influence over curriculum. Publicly funded charter schools must follow Indiana academic standards, including science standards based on the teaching of evolution.
The espousing of one faith tradition or set of beliefs over another or others is inappropriate in a public school context, according to a memo on evolution from the Indiana Department of Education.
Not Grace’s way
That view is counter to Grace College’s teachings: We emphasize that God is the Creator of all life and the entire physical universe beyond, begins an overview of the biology program on the college’s website. The chairman of its math and science department submitted a letter to the editor earlier this month challenging an IPFW professor’s op-ed view that biblical creation has no place in science discussions.
In an interview, Thomas Smith said Grace officials will not dictate the curriculum. But he also said he wouldn’t say for sure that there won’t be a discussion of creationism. The dean of the education school, overseeing the authorization process, said this week that Grace faculty members have taken part in curriculum planning.
Clearly, state education officials should request a detailed account of what will be taught at Smith Academy instead of waiting for end-of-course assessments years from now.
Another concern is the length of the charter: seven years as compared with five-year charters granted by Ball State. Seven years is a lifetime in a student’s experience. Are state officials confident an untested charter authorizer will deliver proper academic oversight students deserve?