Thea Bowman looks to the future

2012-05-13T20:45:00Z 2012-05-14T16:13:05Z Thea Bowman looks to the futureBy Carmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

Members of the Drexel Foundation, which operates Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary, said rumors that the group wants to split from Chicago-based American Quality Schools are not true.

Speaking on behalf of the foundation, board member Ben Clement said the group's contract with AQS expires June 30, 2015.

"They are our educational management company. They are currently under contract. That's as much as we can say," he said.

The Rev. Dale Cudjoe, who is a foundation member and the Thea Bowman School Board president, said that issue has not been on the agenda or discussed at any board meeting.

"If, and when, that becomes necessary, it will be an action of the Drexel Foundation, with recommendation from the School Board," he said. "The School Board does an annual evaluation of AQS, with recommendation of retention or suspension of services. AQS has always done a good job in the operation of the school.

"There's always room for improvement. However, they have provided competent leadership since the opening of Thea Bowman and will continue to do so until such time that a change is recommended and the Drexel board accepts the recommendation."

Michael Bakalis, AQS president, said he has not talked with the Drexel Foundation about such a change.

"We have been with them since the very beginning," he said. "There has been no discussion about this at all, and I hope that's not the case."

In fact, Bakalis said he hopes to have a joint meeting with the foundation and the School Board to discuss the school's future.

"I want to talk to them about rethinking the structure of the high school," he said. "High schools are pretty outdated institutions in the United States. Our schools have become test factories. Kids today are savvy. We need a curriculum that is problem-based, project-based. We want to put our students into community experiences and internships."

Drexel's unique role

It's been almost 10 years since the Drexel Foundation for Educational Excellence Inc. opened Thea Bowman, one of the first charter schools in the region.

Inspired by the memory of the once superior education in Gary, former Gary Mayor Thomas Barnes was one of the three original members of the foundation, which also included the Rev. Robert Gehring and Anne Thompson.

The Drexel Foundation earned a charter to open Thea Bowman through the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University in Muncie. Drexel hired Chicago-based America Quality Schools to operate the school. AQS is responsible for shaping the curriculum and hiring and firing all employees at Thea Bowman.

The Drexel Foundation has the fiduciary authority and responsibility for the school. Its legal purpose is to carry out development and fundraising activities, according to the law. The Drexel Foundation receives state money, which it transfers to AQS to operate the school. AQS has the responsibility and authority to handle and pay all school-related bills.

The foundation-appointed School Board oversees the school's daily operations and sets policy. The charter and foundation's bylaws dictate three members of the Drexel Foundation be chosen to serve on the board. School Board members serve three-year terms and can be reappointed to serve additional terms.

Neither Drexel Foundation members nor School Board members are paid or receive any benefits. Members of the Drexel Foundation pay $250 a year to be members of the board.

Growth over the years

Thea Bowman opened in 2003 with students in kindergarten through sixth grade but expanded beyond that. By August 2005, it had 496 students through eighth grade, and in the next few years, its first class of seniors enrolled in the 2009-10 year.

Today, the school has an enrollment of 1,470 students in K-12, with more than 1,000 students on a waiting list. It has a 2011-12 school budget of $13.5 million.

Foundation board member Clement said that speaks well of the brand. "People want to come here," he said.

Gehring said the school is proud of its athletic program but very much wants to be known for its academics.

Last year, Thea Bowman had a graduation rate of 86.4 percent, compared with 84.9 percent when its first senior class graduated in 2010. In 2010, 65.6 percent of all students in third through eighth grades passed the English/language arts and the math portions of ISTEP-Plus compared to 2011 when only 50 percent of students passed the state test.

"We are pleased with the performance of the school," Clement said of the foundation's members. "We have reached many milestones, but we have very high standards for this school, high aspirations, and we won't rest until we reach them."

Standing by leadership

As the manager for Thea Bowman, AQS hires and fires all employees. AQS President Bakalis said he has no concerns regarding Gwen Adell, a former principal who was promoted to chief administrative officer for Thea Bowman. Adell has more than 30 years of experience in education.

Controversy surrounded Adell more than a year ago when she was accused of plagiarizing her 2004 dissertation submitted to Purdue University in West Lafayette.

At that time, university officials said they would review the situation. No findings have been released. University officials have said that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the university is not at liberty to discuss publicly anything that involves an academic record. They also referred calls to Adell, who has had no comment on the matter. Adell stepped down from her position on the Indiana State Board of Education but has remained with Thea Bowman.

Bakalis said, "I haven't heard anything from the university or Dr. Adell. Her position is equivalent to that of a superintendent. She does the overall administration. Indiana also requires many different grants, and she handles that. She also works with the principals and team leaders and gives the overall direction."

School Board President Cudjoe said as long as people are human and there is conversation, there will be controversy.

"While no organization wants negative press, it's never a good policy to make decisions or govern based solely on such coverage. ... At present, (Adell) is employed by AQS as chief administrative officer of Thea Bowman," he said. "A doctorate is not a requirement to serve in that capacity."

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