After taking over an underperforming charter school, Horizon Christian Academy has worked to distinguish itself as a place for underprivileged students falling desperately behind.
A private school supported with tax dollars, Horizon had its budget clipped when the state decided to end funding for new Horizon students. While a waiver that would have continued funding was denied last month, Horizon plans to remain open.
In fact, Horizon, where state officials said many students are not improving academically, is seeking financing to buy the Spanish Colonial Revival-style campus it occupies on Wells Street and expand into vocational training.
Because it is nondenominational, the school receives no church money and has relied on state funding through student vouchers. Last year, the school received $1.38 million in taxpayer funds to educate 245 students. It expects about the same number this year.
Horizon co-founders Tammy Henline and Anthony Beasley said they make decisions for the school and declined to provide board member names. They bristle when told their six-figure salaries would place them among Allen County's top 10 government earners, making more than any Fort Wayne Community Schools employee except Superintendent Wendy Robinson.
“Dr. Henline and I hold multiple positions in this school,” Beasley said in an interview early this month. “In fact, if you look at it from the position of responsibility of what each of us has to do and are responsible for, the truth is we would be underpaid.”
In a separate follow-up phone interview last week, the two implied they would lower their salaries “to meet the demands of the school.”
Horizon took over the campus from Imagine MASTer Academy charter school in 2013. Imagine and a sister school closed their doors when Ball State University declined to renew their charters, citing poor academic performance and insufficient growth.
A charter school is a public school freed from some regulations to try innovative education approaches. A voucher school, such as Horizon, is a private school.
Horizon enrolled as many as 500 students in recent years as it consolidated Imagine schools with its own. But academic progress lagged. State accountability grades of D's and F's in consecutive years brought Horizon before the Indiana State Board of Education. It was prohibited from enrolling new voucher students during the 2017-18 school year, Beasley said. Horizon asked for a waiver so it could enroll new state-paid voucher students this fall.
A state analysis showed the school is able to demonstrate academic improvement with some of its students. But the number of students demonstrating either standard or high growth falls well below a majority. In July, the board denied the waiver request. Horizon can still serve current voucher students and those who pay tuition.
Of 11 schools requesting waivers since the process was installed in 2017, three – including Horizon – were denied, according to State Board of Education figures.
Horizon can file an objection. Josh Gillespie, director of external affairs for the State Board of Education, said in an email that the final order was expected to be sent to Horizon late last week. Once received, Horizon will have 15 days to respond. The State Board of Education will make a final determination on the waiver. Even if granted, the waiver would be too late to meet the Sept. 1 deadline for students to apply for vouchers, Henline said.
In video testimonials attached to the request, four Horizon students say the school supports and cares about them.
Three said they would probably be getting in trouble if not for Horizon.
“Not only academics, they showed me personal love, something I'm not really used to,” one student says in the video. “Without Horizon I'd probably be in the streets, dead or in jail.”
Meanwhile, Horizon, with about 25 teachers and a total staff of 43, is admitting students without vouchers and will instead provide scholarships, Henline and Beasley said. Tuition is $6,300 yearly. About 50 students are enrolled without vouchers, they said.
Henline and Beasley said they are proud of what they've done with state voucher money, exposing kids to things they otherwise would not be. Three Horizon senior boys basketball players were nominated to play in the 2018 McDonald's All-American Games. Sports is one way to keep students in school, they say.
They also note that Horizon was started in 2010 at a different location before voucher funding was available. “We did not start the school because of the voucher program,” Beasley said.
Currently, about 90 percent of Horizon students receive state vouchers, Beasley and Henline said.
The accountability grades the state gives Horizon reflect students coming in who are grades behind academically, they said. Studies show it takes three to five years to make an impact, and they insist numbers show students are improving. They lament that public schools are graded separately at elementary, middle and high school levels, while Horizon is graded as one school and is being denied vouchers at all levels.
Thirteen of 15 students who graduated this year are attending college, they said. They are going to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, University of Indianapolis, Purdue, Ball State and Anderson universities.
“We are making progress with these kids. We really are,” Beasley said. “And it's showing because when they're graduating, they're being successful. College wouldn't be taking our kids if our kids weren't prepared for college.”
Managing 14 grade levels is one rationale Henline and Beasley give for their salaries. Each made about $165,000 in 2016, according to federal forms required to be filed by nonprofit agencies. That would place them among the top 10 highest paid public employees in Allen County that year, which includes IPFW administrators and public school superintendents. It was more than any FWCS principal made overseeing more than twice as many students.
In the phone interview last week, Henline and Beasley declined to give their current salaries, but Beasley said “We are going to adjust our salaries to meet the demands of the school. It's certainly not that (2016) amount.”
Henline and Beasley say comparing them to public school employees is unfair. More accurate, they say, would be to examine each of their responsibilities, allocate portions of their salaries to them and judge if that is fair pay for those positions. They save money by not hiring additional staff to do the jobs they do, Henline said.
Aside from money out of pocket they provide for various daily expenses, they personally give at least $2,000 a year toward scholarships for top students, Henline and Beasley said.
“We are in the trenches of this school every single day doing jobs,” Henline said. “Not figure heads. Not overseeing personnel, but in the trenches doing things. And like Mr. Beasley said, if anything it would be undercompensated, not overcompensated.”