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The Journal Gazette

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Corey Smith is the new head of the Smith Academy for Excellence after taking over from his father, who founded the school.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Tameka Wilson, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy, 2310 Weisser Park Ave., also coaches the step team.

  • Starks

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 8:54 pm

Embattled charters still popular with parents

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

Juanita Williams put her eighth-grade grandson into the Smith Academy for Excellence for Boys for several reasons.

She likes the small classes and the emphasis on integrity, mentoring and self-presentation.

But there’s something else she likes: the fact that the men running the school are African-American.

"They see other African-American men doing positive things," Williams said.

"They catch them while they’re young. I want him to get that role model in front of him that is so positive."

Smith Academy, founded in 2012 on West Washington Boulevard, is one of three publicly funded Fort Wayne charter schools, with a student population that is overwhelmingly black and lives on the city’s southeast side. The others are Thurgood Marshall Academy, also founded in 2012, and Timothy L. Johnson Academy, started in 2002. Thurgood Marshall and Timothy L. Johnson are coed.

While the state authorized state-funded charter schools more than a decade ago to challenge failing public schools, encourage innovation in education and give parents another educational option, they don’t have a particularly good academic track record in Fort Wayne.

Timothy L. Johnson Academy received its first F rating last year in the state’s A-F school accountability system, based primarily on the state’s standardized tests. The previous two years, it received a D rating. Before that, it had received B’s and C’s.

Thurgood Marshall Academy on Weisser Park Avenue has had two ratings since it began: the first an F and last year a C.

Smith Academy is struggling to pull itself up from an F rating, a grade it has had for the past two years.

Charter schools that have thrived and are capable of innovation in instruction and curriculum tend to do a lot of outside fundraising, said Russ Simnick, the Indianapolis-based senior director at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter schools can hover at the bottom for five years in Indiana before they must be defended in front of the State Board of Education, Simnick said, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily will close afterwards.

Notwithstanding the low A-F ratings, parents and grandparents stand by Fort Wayne’s charter schools.

Williams said the ISTEP+ scores are not a preoccupation for her, since her grandson passed those tests at his public middle school before entering Smith Academy. Williams also said she likes the high graduation rate achieved by many schools that serve boys only.

Lucresha Lindsay was impressed last spring when she toured Johnson Academy. Her daughter is now in kindergarten there and wears a uniform, an aspect she also likes.

And there’s the neighborhood aspect. "A lot of her friends go there," said Lindsay, who is a preschool teacher.

Johnson and Smith academies are managed by the Leona Group of Michigan. Marshall is managed by American Quality Schools.

Here is a look at the Fort Wayne charter schools and their plans for improvement.

Timothy L. Johnson Academy

Johnson’s authorizing agent, Education One at Trine University, has given the F-rated school until Dec. 31 to improve or close its doors. It is not an empty threat. In June, Education One closed two charters in Indianapolis because of academics, finances and governance, said Lindsay Omlor, Education One’s director.

At a Johnson board meeting in late August, Omlor said she had already seen progress in several categories, including attendance, instruction and teacher ratios as she pulled up a rubric on her laptop that measures a school on the quality of instruction, attendance and fi­nances, among other things.

In August, the board hired 25-year Fort Wayne Community Schools veteran and former Principal Dawn Starks.

With a record as a turnaround principal at two FWCS elementary schools, Starks has hired three new teachers for the K-6 school and would like to add another kindergarten teacher. Class sizes have gone from 35 and 38 students to 22 to 24 students, Starks said.

She has boosted enrollment from last spring’s 150 to 296 students by sending out a mailing within a mile radius of the school and talking up school changes, Starks said. She also hired an instructional coach to help teachers teach more effectively.

The board also approved $5,000 to update the curriculum and scheduled a professional training day for the teachers to learn how to teach writing, an area needing improvement.

Starks will have to tackle the school’s technology, which she said is 20 years old and not functional. In order to improve school finances, which are in the black, Starks acquired two new tenants: Head Start and the Boys & Girls Clubs.

"We think with Dawn Starks’ leadership, (she) is the kind of exceptional leadership we need," said Johnson board Chairman Ian Rolland, retired CEO of Lincoln National Corp. "She’s got a track record of performance that is unusually good."

Omlor said that even though Starks is the daughter of the Rev. Vernon Graham, a board member, Education One worked with the board to ensure that there was no conflict of interest.

Thurgood Marshall Academy

With an enrollment of 120 students, a 10 percent jump from last year, Thurgood Marshall is emphasizing reading across the curriculum this year in order to improve its rating, Principal Tameka Wilson said. The school, authorized through American Quality Schools of Chicago, holds in-house weekly professional development sessions.

Wilson said her goal is to make Thurgood Marshall a neighborhood school, a goal shared at Timothy L. Johnson as well.

The school’s theme is social justice.

For that reason, Wilson coaches the nationally ranked step team of middle and high school students and the Baby Mavericks, the elementary-aged step team.

Step teams, an integral part of Thurgood Marshall, are nearly as old as Africa itself and represent "a culture of movement and communication (that was) eventually picked up by predominately African-American sororities and fraternities in the early 1900s," Wilson wrote in an email.

Smith Academy

With 90 students in grades 2 through 12, Smith Academy is struggling to hire a part-time instructional coach, said Corey Smith, principal.

There are no iPads at the school, but students do have access to two laptop carts and Chromebooks. If students were to attend FWCS or East Allen County Schools, the technology would be more sophisticated.

FWCS has 13,000 iPads and 11,000 laptops for a 1.3-1 ratio of devices to students, FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. EACS’ ratio is 1-to-1 for iPads and laptops.

Charter schools receive state dollars primarily based on enrollment and do not have the option of going to the taxpayers for a referendum or bond issue, said Tim Ziebarth, Grace College’s executive officer of academic affairs and the dean of the school of professional and online education.

The college is Smith Academy’s authorizing agent.

Grace College is waiting for the 2015 standardized test scores, which will measure student growth, ­Ziebarth said.

The college has not issued a deadline for improve­ment but asked for a plan that would improve the school’s rating and have academic programming aligned with state standards, ­Ziebarth said.

"They have submitted such a plan," he said. "They are working through that plan currently."

Thomas Smith said items in the plan include implementing data folders for each student that track the student’s academic progress and hiring an academic coach.