Tindley School to Be an Indiana First

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for March 24 and thereafter
740 words

INDIANAPOLIS — What would happen if you took one of the most rigorous private high schools in your city, moved it to one of your most blighted blocks and issued an open invitation to neighborhood kids to attend — free of charge?

That far-fetched idea comes amazingly close to what’s about to happen at the Meadows, an Indianapolis neighborhood where the murder rate gets far more notice than the graduation rate.

The Charles A. Tindley Accelerated High School, which celebrated its "groundbreaking" March 19, won’t look much like such private counterparts as Park Tudor of Indianapolis, Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, Evansville Day School or the Culver Academies. It will have no lighted football field, no 400-seat theater, no lake for launching sailboats. In fact, it will be housed in an abandoned Cub Foods supermarket, long a symbol of failed urban renewal in the Meadows community on the Near Eastside.

What it will have in common with the state’s elite private schools is the highest of academic standards.

Tindley, named after a former slave who went on to become a renowned composer, will be the first charter high school in Indiana and the second in the nation to use the Accelerated Schools model developed at Stanford University in 1986. It will serve grades 8-12, with 80 students chosen by lottery per grade.

The model, according to CEO and Principal Marcus E. Robinson, means no channeling of students into honors, average and remedial tracks. The school treats every student as gifted and talented, no matter how disadvantaged his background. Its curriculum is based on Advanced Placement level course expectations. Its rulebook requires parents to be engaged.

"It’s not a canned thing," Robinson explains. "It really is a method: powerful learning, great instruction, incredible instructors, smaller classes."

The arrival of Tindley Accelerated comes at a crucial moment for the charter school movement in Indiana and across the nation.

Since the Indiana General Assembly passed a charter school law three years ago, 17 have opened in Indiana with total enrollments of about 2,500 students. Five of those schools are in Indianapolis, with five more, including Tindley, set to open here in the fall. Charter schools are publicly financed but freed of regulations that prevent innovation in traditional public schools.

In a March 18 story in the Indianapolis Star, critics blamed charter schools for draining students and resources from Indianapolis Public Schools without doing a better job themselves. Skeptics also point to studies showing that charter school teachers are less experienced than those in traditional schools.

On March 15, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix issued one of the most comprehensive studies of charter schools to date. This study examined nearly 158,000 test scores of more than 60,000 Arizona students attending 873 charter and traditional public schools statewide over a three-year period. The purpose was to determine the net effect of school type on Stanford Achievement Reading Tests (SAT-9) and total achievement growth over time.

Although the charter students started with worse scores than the traditional students, "charter school students showed overall annual growth roughly three points higher than their non-charter peers, whom charter students surpassed on SAT-9 Reading tests by the end of 12th grade," the researchers found.

One finding of note: In elementary school, charter students experienced higher growth rates than traditional peers; in middle school the growth rates were the same, but in high school the traditional students experienced higher growth rates than charter students. The likely reason, the researchers concluded, was that most of the charter high schools are vocational, focusing less on academics than on job preparation.

That makes the Tindley school model all the more significant since its focus is explicitly on college prep.

In Los Angeles, where the Accelerated Charter High School opened in 2003, early results are encouraging, Robinson says. (A selection of Accelerated Schools test results can be seen at www.stanford.edu/group/ASP/accompl-stuach.html).

"Extremely successful" are the words used by Alex Carroll, a retired Indianapolis businessman and board member raising funds to help get Tindley through that critical bridge period when no public dollars are available for operations.

"We’ve got some wonderful backing," Carroll said. "The (Indianapolis) Chamber of Commerce has even started a fund to help us get started. Public education remains a priority of the chamber. It’s the No. 1 economic weakness of Indianapolis."

The same could be said of most Indiana cities. How ironic if a solution is forged in a retail wasteland called the Meadows.



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