Gary Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, a retired teacher and a strong proponent of traditional public schools, said she sees nothing wrong with a charter school that has lost its authorizer shopping around for a new one.
That's what Gary's Charter School of the Dunes did last spring. The school was one of seven schools across the state notified in January it would not be renewed by Ball State University's Office of Charter Schools. At that time, Danielle Sleight, charter school board president and chief executive officer, said she would appeal the ruling and search for a new authorizer. Calumet College of St. Joseph agreed to be the school's new charter sponsor effective July 1.
Charter schools are public schools that have more flexibility in hiring teachers and creating a curriculum. The first charter schools in Indiana opened in the 2002-03 school year.
Rogers, who is co-author of the original legislation establishing charter schools, said charter schools have a mission and should not hesitate to get a new authorizer if they believe it will help them better accomplish their mission.
However, Rogers also said there should be a moratorium expanding new charter schools in Gary.
"I think Ball State was under a lot of pressure to not authorize some of their failing schools," she said. "Charter School of the Dunes has a mission dealing with the environment and they had already started on their new building. I believe that and the fact that Calumet College is a local university and is in close proximity to the school will work well for them."
In wake of the recent school grading scandal involving former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, Rogers said all schools should nonetheless move forward without fear. "Until the grading issue has been resolved, I don't think any school should be penalized," she said.
Charter School of the Dunes and Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne both withdrew their appeals to Ball State and searched for new authorizers last school year.
Calumet College President Dan Lowery said there were "unique circumstances" that led the college to authorize Charter School of the Dunes.
"We were not looking to get into the charter school business," he said, following an open house Aug. 9 when the school celebrated its new energy-efficient, environmentally friendly $13 million steel building at U.S. 20 and Old Hobart Road in Gary.
"Ball State was going through some growing pains. They made a determination to pull back," he said. "We saw great hope and potential. We saw strong leadership. Our education program and faculty are focused on urban education. Then, we have a unique proximity to the school. We also looked at the numbers behind the numbers."
Lowery said the college signed a three-year contract with Charter School of the Dunes, and has a well-structured relationship governed by state law. He said Jessica Madden, the college's director of field experience in the education department, has been assigned as the "point person" with the charter school.
Madden said the college has developed an accountability plan with high expectations regarding test scores, teaching strategies and other measures. She said there will be professional development and training for teachers, and she'll be there regularly to observe. Madden said 553 students are enrolled in kindergarten through 11th grade. Classes began Aug. 12.
"Our expectations are high, and I think they see that now," Madden said. "I spoke to several parents at the open house and they said they've already noticed a change in some of the procedures. They mentioned that some things have been changed in the handbooks. There are also different interventions in place for struggling students. I believe we're off to a great start."
Parents Tabatha and Theotis Eskridge, of Gary, who have four children enrolled at Charter School of the Dunes, are thrilled the school remained open.
"There is a lot of tutoring available," Tabatha Eskridge said. "I'm glad they were able to find another sponsor. The teachers here really care about their students. I think they need to give the staff a chance to prove the school can improve. If you have a few bad scores, it can bring the whole school down."
Richard Barnes, a local educational observer and supporter of Charter School of the Dunes, said for the school to be successful, it must have an authorizer that is sympathetic to and understanding of the Gary culture.
Barnes, of Gary, who has been on a number of boards in Northwest Indiana, said he was encouraged by what he saw at the open house. "The children were meeting their teachers and looking at their classrooms. There was an aura of happiness, which was very encouraging," he said.