State school board gives Ambassador Academy more time to find evidence of academic improvement

Ambassador Christian Academy Principal Danielle Graham-Harris, at podium on left, asks the State Board of Education on Wednesday to allow the Gary private school to accept new voucher students despite repeated D school accountability ratings.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — The State Board of Education is giving a private school in Gary an extra month to identify evidence of academic improvement before deciding whether to prohibit the school from accepting new students whose tuition is paid by a state voucher.

Ambassador Christian Academy received D accountability grades from the Republican-appointed state School Board for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, due largely to lackluster student performance on standardized exams.

Under state law, the board is required to prohibit new voucher students from enrolling in the school for at least one year, unless the school can show "a majority of students ... demonstrated academic improvement during the preceding school year."

School Principal Danielle Graham-Harris told the board that Ambassador students are growing in their knowledge, even if most are not yet meeting the proficiency standards for their grade levels.

"We are moving in the right direction," she said.

That satisfied Gary's Tony Walker, and several of his state School Board colleagues, who agreed the A-F school grading system the board created and annually used to rate schools doesn't always capture everything good that's happening in a school.

"It's very possible that students can experience academic improvement from year to year that's not reflected in the standardized testing," Walker said.

"I don't think our accountability metric now is satisfactory, or to my liking, because it's just based on that."

However, other board members, including David Freitas, Gordon Hendry and Kathleen Mote, questioned why the board would ignore its own accountability system, and the consequences dictated by the General Assembly, to potentially grant Ambassador a waiver to continue accepting new voucher students based on noncomprehensive performance data.

"We frankly don't have our act together for this," Freitas said.

The state School Board previously has granted waivers on an ad hoc basis to four private schools that received consecutive D or F grades.

It never has barred new voucher students from attending a low-performing private school, even as it has required poorly rated public schools be turned over to private operators based solely on repeated F accountability grades.

Ambassador school leaders said afterward they will return to the board next month with data they believe will demonstrate academic improvement, in the hope of being allowed to continue enrolling new voucher students for the 2018-19 academic year.

Either way, voucher students currently attending the school could continue doing so.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.