FORT WAYNE – The clock is ticking for officials at three local charter schools as a Feb. 5 deadline looms to notify Ball State University if they will appeal a decision not to renew their charters.
In the meantime, the parents of almost 1,500 students who attend Timothy L. Johnson Academy, Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway are exploring their options.
Based on initial feedback, many families want to stay put, hoping the charter schools find a way to remain open. Meanwhile, area school districts are encouraging these families to take a second look at traditional public schools.
On Tuesday, Ball State announced it would not renew the charters of three schools in Allen County, along with four others across the state. The existing charters expire June 30.
In total, 20 schools learned their fate, with just four receiving five-year renewals. Seven schools were not renewed and two withdrew their renewal applications. The remaining schools received three-year extensions under conditions they will improve.
The move was the result of an overhaul of the university’s renewal process to raise the expectations for charters.
The bottom line is: Quality is our top priority, said Bob Marra, director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State.
Rachel Cirullo, Imagine Schools Inc. regional director, said both of Fort Wayne’s Imagine schools intend to appeal Ball State’s decision.
Johnson Academy board President Mike Nickleson said the board and the school have yet to make a decision on an appeal but called it a high possibility. The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday.
He also said in the event the appeal is unsuccessful, the school will look to continue its mission under a new authorizer.
Eleven years ago there was no one else but Ball State, he said. Now there’s certainly more interest, so that could be possible.
When charters were first introduced in Indiana, the schools, which use tax dollars but operate independently of public school districts, could be authorized by just a few entities including Ball State and the Indianapolis mayor. Recent legislative changes allow 30 private, nonprofit four-year colleges to sponsor charters and also established a statewide charter board to sponsor schools.
Imagine MASTer Academy will also be looking to other universities for authorization, Principal Amanda Hernandez said during a recent parent meeting. Some options mentioned included Trine University, University of Saint Francis and Grace College.
The two other local charter schools, Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy and Smith Academy for Excellence, are authorized by the Indiana Charter School Board and Grace College, respectively.
The Indiana Charter School Board is in its spring application cycle. The board is accepting applications for charters intending to open in the fall. Applicants are required to file a nonbinding letter of intent by Feb. 15, according to the group’s website. Full applications will be due March 15, followed by a review process and public hearing. Decisions on approval are scheduled for the week of May 20, before any of the schools let out for the summer.
ICSB executive director Claire Fiddian-Green said typically the board discourages a school from applying in the spring to open in the fall. But she said this situation is unique because these schools already have staffs and buildings.
Fiddian-Green said any future authorizer will look carefully at the reasons why another authorizer didn’t renew a school’s charter.
Imagine Schools on Broadway has scheduled an informational meeting with parents for Monday night. MASTer Academy held a meeting for its parents shortly after the decision. About 200 parents, students and teachers attended the meeting to show support for the school and vowed to fight the decision with an appeal.
Tara Alt, a middle school special education teacher at MASTer Academy, teared up addressing parents at the meeting. Alt, whose own children attend the school, said she watched as the public school system failed her kids.
You have a group of people here that aren’t here just to get a paycheck. We care about your children, she said.
Over the past two years, Ball State has been reworking its process for renewing charters. Officials say its revamped process holds charters more accountable by taking a closer look at academic achievement, finance and governance. The schools locally have struggled to improve performance on standardized tests, Marra said.
Several MASTer Academy parents shared success stories and spoke in favor of the school, which has begun a campaign sending letters and video messages to public officials including legislators and Gov. Mike Pence.
But with the timeline and the school’s future uncertain, some parents have begun looking for other options.
Mary Staples has two children attending MASTer Academy and two others in private school. She said her first thoughts after learning of the non-renewal were what will she do and where will her children attend school.
Both her children at MASTer Academy are in the school’s special education program and do well at the charter school, she said.
What works for one child doesn’t always work for another, she said.
But she has started talking with the principal of the private school about switching in the event MASTer Academy closes. She’s never been happy with Fort Wayne Community Schools, she said.
Parent Jackie Wilson said she also tried Fort Wayne Community Schools but wasn’t satisfied. She’s sent all five of her children to MASTer Academy. She said the school’s teachers have all made her children feel comfortable and went the extra mile to ensure their success.
I have a list eight miles long of teachers who have impacted my kids, she said.
She said she’s disappointed with Ball State’s decision but will maintain hope that the school will stay open.
I will hang on to Imagine for as long as I can, she said.
‘Look at our schools’
FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said the district is encouraging parents like Wilson and Staples to take a second look at what FWCS can offer.
We are aware that some families left us previously for whatever reason, she said. We want to encourage families to take a look at our schools talk to people there, take a tour. That’s really the best way to see what’s going on.
Stockman said the district doesn’t have specific plans to reach out to charter school families at this point but previously sent out postcards to families who left the district about its School Choice Fair and Tuesday Tours, where parents can get a look at a school they might want to attend.
East Allen County Schools spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said the district plans to reach out to families at some point. She said EACS will welcome families into the district.
Shortly after Ball State’s announcement, FWCS began receiving calls from families who wanted to pull their students immediately, Stockman said.
We really want to be as accommodating as we can for families that are going through this, she said.