Ball State reviews charter schools, some could close

2013-01-14T00:00:00Z 2013-01-31T18:31:09Z Ball State reviews charter schools, some could closeCarmen McCollum, (219) 662-5337

As Ball State University reviews the charters of 20 schools across the state, including eight local charter schools, some are concerned how many of them might close.

The local schools up for renewal are Charter School of the Dunes, Gary; Gary Lighthouse Charter; 21st Century Charter School, Gary; West Gary Lighthouse Charter; LEAD College Prep, Gary; Aspire Charter Academy, Gary; East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy, East Chicago; and East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School.

Bob Marra, executive director of Ball State's Office of Charter School, said Friday "decisions will be made very shortly." He said teams of evaluators visited schools during the fall, reviewing academic performance, governance and finances.

There are three options -- nonrenewal, contract extension or a five-year renewal, Marra said.

"Obviously, the primary purpose of the school is academic so the emphasis is on academics," he said. "But you can have stellar academic performance but still have financial or governance issues and still be closed."

For the past decade, charter schools, which are alternative public schools formed said to provide innovative, creative education choices, have had more freedom in hiring teachers as well as not being held to the same limitations and requirements as other public schools. However, state law last year was changed to hold charters to the same academic standards as public schools.

In addition to the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University, the Indiana Charter School Board is a second agency that can authorize charter schools in the state. The board was established last year.

While Ball State officials have until March 1 to announce the fate of the charter schools, Marra said the decision will be made soon to give students and parents time to make other arrangements if a school's charter is not renewed.


Making gains despite low letter grades

While Charter School of the Dunes was only approved for a two-year renewal in 2009, rather than the top five-year renewal, School Board President Danielle Sleight said they will be happy with whatever they get this year.

Sleight acknowledges the school has had several principals in the 10 years its been open. The most recent principal, Christine Pepa, has been with the school for four years.

"Our principal is amazing. It took us a while to find the perfect principal," Sleight said.

"We understand our letter grade is an F," Sleight said. "We understand that looks terrible. Fortunately for us, the decision will not be solely based on just the letter grade. Last year, we made gains in our ISTEP scores. There was a dip in fifth grade but overall we had double-digit gains in the school."

She said the charter school has continued to diversify its board of directors, and the administration has been making gains. Besides those gains, Sleight said there is a waiting list of students who want to get into the school, and she has her own children -- a third-grader and a seventh-grader -- enrolled at Charter School of the Dunes.

The school has an enrollment of 460 students in kindergarten through 10th grade. It intends to expand to 11th grade next fall and the senior level after that.

Last year, school officials broke ground on a new $13 million school building at the intersection of U.S. 20 and Old Hobart Road. Sleight said the building will be complete in July, and the school is operating in the black.

Sleight said she does not know what she will do if Ball State does not extend the charter.


Optimism reigns

Michael Suggs, president of the board for LEAD College Prep, said he is optimistic the charter will be renewed.

"We feel we offer a great and viable opportunity for educating students in Gary. We have committed time, effort and the money necessary to becoming a quality school," he said.

Suggs said LEAD College Prep is in its second year under its current management. The school is in its 10th year of operation but was previously managed by KIPP. When it separated from KIPP, its charter was amended and it moved under the auspices of Chicago-based American Quality Schools.

"I expect they will look at the academic performance at the school as well as the alternatives for our students if LEAD College Prep didn't exist. We provide a safe environment for our children, and we are doing everything we can to remove barriers to a quality education," he said.

The school has about 400 students in fifth through 12th grade.

As part of its renewal proposal, the school wants to begin offering classes to students at the kindergarten level. Suggs said they find that students come to them two or three levels below their grade, and it would benefit students to begin kindergarten at LEAD College Prep.

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