Two new Region charter schools are opening this fall, one offering students college preparatory courses, and the other focusing on art and technology.
Chrissy Hart, formerly an administrator at Lighthouse Academies, is founding executive director of Steel City Academy, which is opening at the ARC building in Gary. It will offer classes to students in seventh and ninth grades, adding a grade each year until it offers classes to students from pre-K through 12th.
Darlene Henderson is executive director/chief executive officer of Heritage Institute of Arts & Technology, which will offer classes to students in kindergarten through fourth grades. The school will add a grade each year, eventually going to eighth grade.
Henderson hopes to house the school at the former St. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Merrillville, though Diocese of Gary officials said that deal has not been finalized. The Catholic school has been closed for 24 years.
Both charter schools have been approved for five years by Indiana Charter School Board, one of several entities in the state that now authorize charter schools. These are the first two charter schools authorized by ICSB in the Region.
The charter school board also is considering applications from Joyce L. Bennett Academy of Excellence (Fresh Oil Ministries) in Gary, and East Chicago Focus Academy (GEO Foundation) in East Chicago. If approved, those two would open in fall 2017.
ICSB's Michelle McKeown said the agency has a startup requirement checklist, including proper building permits, safety plans, handbooks, staffing and background checks.
"Each school must have fully completed each checklist item ... For most schools, each item won't be completed until just before official opening," she said.
Charter schools are public schools that operate with fewer restrictions than traditional public schools. For example, charter schools don't have unions, and all teachers are not required to be licensed.
There are 10 charter schools in Lake County and two in Porter county, with a total enrollment of 6,772 students.
Hart, who has worked with elementary and high school students, said she wanted to open a school on Gary's West Side, because there is a void in that area.
A couple of years ago, Gary Community School Corp. closed all its middle schools except Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School on the far east side. Last year, the State Board of Education voted to close the failing Dunbar-Pulaski; that school was renamed Williams Annex, serving seventh and eighth grades, and became part of Williams Elementary School.
Gary's high schools also include grades seven and eight, and at least two elementary schools — Williams and the Banneker Achievement Center — house students in grades kindergarten through eighth.
Hart hopes to enroll 160 students this fall; 20 are enrolled so far. Hart anticipates a budget of $1.76 million based on an enrollment of 160 students. She hopes to begin construction on several ARC building spaces in May.
"It's just internal construction, nothing outside," she said.
"There will be eight classrooms to start. We got a loan of $250,00 from the Illinois Facilities Fund. It's a nonprofit organization that lends to other nonprofits. The headquarters is in Chicago, but there is an office in Indianapolis."
Just recently, Steel City received a huge donation of furniture from the Hyatt corporate office, including file cabinets, desks and chairs. "All of that is great for us. It means we won't need to spend money on office furniture, and that money will be spent on kids," Hart said.
Hart said they will share space with ARC, but she hopes to buy the two buildings at the site near Village Shopping Center in Gary.
Gary parent Tangala Hendrix and her daughter, Essence Blair, walked around the building recently with Hart. Hendrix said Essence will be in seventh grade in the fall, and she does not want her to attend Williams Annex, where Essence has been a student since kindergarten.
"I'm not saying the kids she is around are bad, but I'd like her to make some new friends and gain some new experiences," Hendrix said.
"Some of the kids she's around bring her down and that affects her grades. She does fine. She's passed ISTEP. I love Williams. Some of the teachers really push the kids to do their best; then there are some who don't seem to care."
Steel City Principal Katie Kirley said she is passionate about building an instructional framework with rigor and relevance for students.
Kirley, who early in her career was assigned to Gary through Teach for America, said she originally was a pre-med major at Loyola University in Chicago.
Started in 1989, Teach For America recruits college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural schools.
Kirley said she went to Loyola to play basketball, then had a couple of knee injuries and wasn't able to play any longer. "I thought I would stay in Chicago and become a physical therapist, but I was also deeply involved in women's studies as my minor."
As a college senior, Kirley, impressed with a Teach for America seminar, was placed in Northwest Indiana. "That passion was what I was looking for," Kirley said. "Nine years later, I'm still here."
Kirley said she fell in love with teaching, and taught at Gary Lighthouse, teaching middle school science and math.
"My passion is instruction and data, and teacher professional development," she said. "I'm excited about building a rigorous college prep academy."
Heritage Institute of Arts & Technology
Henderson's charter school proposal had been turned down several times by Ball State University and Indiana Charter School Board, before gaining ICSB approval earlier this year.
Henderson said her school is actively recruiting students and has collected nearly 100 intent-to-enroll forms for grades pre-K through fourth.
"Parents continue to express excitement about the first arts and technology school to be located in the Region," she said.
"We chose Merrillville for the location because of its accessibility and because it operates as the hub for the area. The school welcomes students from anywhere within the state of Indiana. We have created strategic partnerships like the one with Steel City Academy for recruiting students and exploring transportation needs."
The two new charter schools will host a recruitment fair May 7.
Henderson said she has contracted with the Leona Group to be its management company. According to the application, the new charter school has a projected budget of $3.75 million in its first year of operation based on an enrollment of 350 students.
She said architects have gone through the old St. Peter and Paul Catholic School, and their renovation plan includes roof repair, room modification and disabilities updates for bathrooms. The plans for renovation are being reviewed by the Indiana Department of Education. Once that's approved, Henderson said they will proceed.
Parish leader the Rev. Jon Plavcan said last week he is in talks with Henderson. "We're in negotiation to have a charter school there, but there has been no contract signed, no lease agreement and no approval from the town of Merrillville," he said.
Merrillville zoning director Dorinda Gregor said the charter school has not been before the Merrillville Zoning Board to find out if they need an exception or if it is a permitted use, and has not been approved by the Merrillville Town Council.
"I began receiving emails, people asking about the elevators and inspections, but no one has made contact with the town," she said.
"The charter school is supposed to do improvements to the building, but we don't have anything from them. They cannot move forward until they get approval from the town."
Diocese officials said the school was closed in 1992. Gregor said there are safety issues, and the town will have to make sure the facility is in good condition for schoolchildren.
Gregor said Merrillville would not do a building inspection unless a permit were obtained, and no permits for that building have been issued.
Henderson has appointed retired Gary Principal Shelley Fisher as Heritage's principal. Fisher is a former adjunct professor at Indiana Wesleyan University in Merrillville and a former member of Drexel Foundation for Educational Excellence, the board that oversees Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary.
Fisher, who had been a principal at Melton, Washington and Ernie Pyle elementary schools in Gary, said she believes charter schools allow teachers to be creative and innovative.
"One of the reasons that charter schools do not perform any better than traditional public schools is that many are mere replicas of traditional schools," she said.
"Educators are still in the single-mode paradigm seeing the scholar as a product rather than both a product and producer in the environment," she said.
"Instead of increasingly adapting the environment to themselves (such as focusing on test-taking for example), why not adapt themselves to the environment (by creating and innovating)?"