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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Imagine Schools on Broadway is one of three area charter schools whose future remains uncertain after Ball State University revoked its charter.

Charter school families in limbo

Tough decisions lie ahead as potential closures loom

Mary Staples has been a strong supporter of Imagine MASTer Academy, but she feels she’s in limbo now, pulled between her desire to send her kids to the school and her need to plan ahead. Ball State University decided not to renew the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and two other Fort Wayne charter schools because of their poor academic performances.

Officials at the local schools who lost charters say they still hope to find other sponsors to keep their doors open this fall.

Staples is holding out hope, but still making arrangements for her two children for next year if the school closes.

“For so many parents … this is their choice,” she said. “I’m really hopeful somebody will step up.”

She said she has spoken with a private school that will accept her children in the event that MASTer Academy doesn’t find a sponsor.

Jackie Wilson finds herself in similar shoes.

“Everybody has to have a backup plan,” said Wilson, a parent of five children at MASTer Academy. Imagine is still her first choice for her kids, and she hopes the school will be successful in finding a new sponsor, she said.

She said the uncertainty about the schools’ future is difficult to deal with, not only for parents but also for teachers.

The three local schools whose charters were not reauthorized enroll more than 1,500 students and employ about 85 teachers, not including assistants, secretaries and other staff, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Some parents have already made the decision to send their children to other schools next year, said Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman. She said she’s not surprised parents are holding out. Those who made the decision early to switch schools have participated in the district’s lottery process, she said.

Registrations for FWCS and East Allen County Schools, the two districts the charter schools operate within, won’t be until August. FWCS officials understand the difficult situation families are in and will do all they can to help make the transition as painless as possible, Stockman said.

Families shouldn’t have any problems registering with the schools they’re assigned to based on where they live. Enrolling in a school other than a family’s assigned school would be difficult, she said.

At an impasse

Despite losing their charters from Ball State, officials at Imagine MASTer Academy, Imagine Schools on Broadway and Timothy L. Johnson Academy remain hopeful they will be able to find new sponsors allowing them to keep their doors open.

Ball State announced Wednesday that an appeal panel upheld the university’s decision not to renew the charters of seven schools in the state, including the two Imagine charters in Fort Wayne.

Five schools asked Ball State to reconsider its decision and appealed in hearings last month. Both Imagine Schools in Fort Wayne went through the appeal process, but Timothy L. Johnson Academy opted not to move forward with an appeal.

Johnson Academy board President Mike Nickleson said the school is still searching for a new sponsor, one that supports its mission of serving the area’s most challenging students. He said the school chose to withdraw its appeal because it became clear an appeal would be “fruitless.”

“We feel that (Ball State) and (Johnson Academy) are at an impasse,” Nickleson said in a statement at the time. “Our desire to serve the at-risk community cannot be met under the current authorizer, and so we respectfully choose to withdraw our appeal of their decision.”

With a change in state law, charters have several options for sponsorship, including a state board, public and private four-year colleges and universities, and the boards of public schools.

Imagine Schools also expressed confidence that both Fort Wayne schools – Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway – will remain open in the fall in a letter sent home to MASTer Academy parents after Ball State’s latest decision.

“Despite this announcement, it is our intention to keep our school open. We are exploring options that would maintain the educational choice you deserve and have come to expect. We look forward to sharing more about this in the coming days,” Amanda Hernandez, principal, wrote in a letter recently sent home to parents.

Caution urged

The deadline has passed to ask the Indiana Charter School Board for sponsorship, but a higher learning institution could be a possibility for the county charter schools.

But institutions should be cautious about the decision to sponsor a charter, especially one whose charter was pulled by its previous authorizer, said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Johnson Academy asked East Allen County Schools to sponsor the charter, but the district’s board decided it wasn’t an endeavor the district could take on at this time.

“Any organization asked to become an authorizer should be very thoughtful and careful about entering into that agreement,” Richmond said. “There are significant and real responsibilities to kids and to the public, and its work to fulfill both those responsibilities.”

Richmond said Ball State worked to develop a process that was thorough and ensured its charter schools were on track toward academic success.

The Ball State Office of Charter Schools received a grant from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that allowed the university to re-evaluate and update some of its procedures, providing a deeper look at its three core areas: governance, finance and academic achievement. The result was the decision not to renew the charters of the seven schools.

Nickleson has said Johnson Academy is a safety net for students who aren’t successful in traditional public schools. In the school’s 10 years of operation, it’s had difficulty achieving even a 50 percent pass rate for its students on the state standardized test.

Nickleson agrees that the school hasn’t come as far as its leaders had hoped but is looking for a sponsor that would give the school the opportunity to continue its mission.

But Richmond said schools like Johnson Academy were granted a charter because they said they could be successful with a certain population of students, but Ball State has found that’s not the case.

“We need schools that can succeed with these students who are far behind. We don’t need schools that make excuses,” he said.