Ball State Charters Meeting Diverse Need

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Sept. 14 and thereafter
740 words

(Note to editors: This is the second in a two-part series).When the Southwest Sullivan School Corp. closed Graysville Elementary School in a cost-saving move, residents got mad. Then they got creative. Concerned citizens asked Ball State University to sponsor a charter school in their southwest Indiana town. Rural Community Academy opened its doors Aug. 17. with 90 students from kindergarten to grade six. The school is housed in the old Graysville Elementary building.

Year after year, residents of Gary suffered the stigma of the state’s worst ISTEP scores. When lawmakers finally passed a charter school law in 2001, citizens jumped at the chance to create alternatives. Gary, with three charter schools sponsored by Ball State, is second only to Indianapolis in the number of charter schools in operation. Two more are set to open in the fall of 2005. A proposal from community leaders for a new middle school, which would expand into a K-12, is pending.

From Evansville to South Bend, from Graysville to Fort Wayne, families are welcoming new public schools into their neighborhoods. At the moment, Indiana has 25 charter schools — publicly-financed but with more autonomy than traditional school systems. By law, they can be sponsored by local school corporations, public universities that grant four-year degrees and, in Indianapolis, the mayor.

In practice, however, only a handful of school districts have ventured into the chartering business. And of the state’s public universities, only Ball State has taken its statutory privilege to heart.

Ball State is the sponsor of 10 schools so far, covering almost every corner of the state, with about seven more in the pipeline.

The decision was controversial; many in the public education community opposed charters because of concerns they would drain resources from existing schools. For a year, the Fort Wayne Community School Corporation protested by refusing to place Ball State student teachers into its classrooms.

But Dean Roy Weaver of the BSU Teachers College hasn’t regretted the choice. "It’s always been our mission to extend opportunities to those who don’t have them," Weaver explains. And that is exactly what charter schools are doing.

Contrary to predictions that charter schools would siphon off the best and brightest, they’ve drawn a student population more disadvantaged than the norm.

A look at the demographics of the Ball State charter students is revealing. Half of the 1,468 pupils enrolled last year qualified for free or reduced price lunch, 77 percent were minorities and 9 percent had special needs. In most cases, they trailed their traditional school counterparts on achievement test scores.

As hoped, their rate of improvement is outpacing their peers in traditional schools. During the last school year, 53 percent of the charter students exceeded national norm gains in reading, while 52 percent did so in language arts and 41 percent in math.

There’s been progress on ISTEP, too. The percentage of third graders passing both the math and English portions of ISTEP at Irvington Community School in Indianapolis rose from 35 percent in 2002 to 59 percent in 2003. At the Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, where 81 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the percentage of third graders passing both rose from 9.5 percent in 2002 to 26 percent in 2003.

All the schools are analyzing the test data intensely so they can improve what they are doing.

Unfortunately, the promise of charter schools in Indiana is limited by both politics and policy. The politics of public education – the tendency to reject any reforms that appear to threaten existing schools – has deterred other universities from getting involved.

By policy, the legislature has capped at five the number of new charter schools that public universities may open in any given year. As demand for charter schools grows around the state, that cap will stymie reform.

"I see interest increasing," says Martin S. Dezelan, director of Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools. "We are getting calls from Muncie, Anderson, Terre Haute, Brazil."

Both Weaver and Dezelan stress they’d like some company in the chartering business. Geographically, it’s not easy for Ball State to monitor schools at great distance. Dezelan says he’d probably approach other public universities to play a role should Ball State charter schools on others’ home turf.

If the 2005 legislature wants to help Ball State, it should do two things: Lift the cap and require other public universities to share the work.

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