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The new regional vice president for Lighthouse Academies of Northwest Indiana believes both traditional public and charter public schools serve a similar purpose in wanting the best for students academically.

“Having seen and worked within the landscape of both arenas, there are vast similarities in school design models, methodologies around teaching and learning and a deep and abiding commitment to the kids served in both,” Sheri Miller-Williams said.

Miller-Williams said she started her career teaching in traditional public schools and has served in executive leadership in both traditional and charter schools. Last school year, Lighthouse had 425 students in East Chicago, and 1,500 students in its three Gary schools.

Bob Marra, executive director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State, said charter schools face several challenges, primarily in finding facilities and providing transportation to students.

Ball State University in Muncie charters dozens of schools across Indiana including nine of the 12 charter schools operating in Northwest Indiana.

“Getting the enrollment, getting the startup funds, obtaining a facility and transportation are challenges that charter schools face,” Marra said.

“I don’t know if the General Assembly will do anything about that. For a startup school, getting a facility remains an issue. Several schools are looking for transportation funding and facility funding.

“We’d like to see the Indiana General Assembly make some changes so that we can get transportation and facility funding. Several charter schools are working with their local representatives on this issue.”

Democratic nominee for state senate Eddie Melton, who also sits on the Indiana State Board of Education, said after speaking with community stakeholders, he believes the city of Gary has reached a saturation point regarding charter schools.

He said an infusion of additional state dollars may be the solution to lessen the financial pressure on traditional public school systems.

Finding a niche, improving perceptions

Kevin Teasley, president/founder of Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, which operates the 21st Century Charter School in Gary and Gary Middle College, said another challenge for charters is the need to focus on their programs and develop a niche.

“We currently have our largest enrollment in our history at 900 students,” he said.

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“We will have a class of 43 graduate in 2017, six of our students will earn their associate degree and one will actually earn her bachelor’s degree from Purdue Calumet. That’s pretty cool stuff. Our niche is college experience and degrees.”

Camilia Wilson, of Gary, enrolled her three youngest children at 21st Century Charter School. A transplant from Illinois, Wilson said her youngsters are in kindergarten, third and fifth grade and started school Aug. 6.

“I lived in Gary before, and I know the school system,” she said. “My oldest daughter is 20 now. She was in a crowded classroom in Gary. When I moved over to Illinois, she was a year behind. I moved there to get her in a better education landscape. In Gary, the classes were crowded. I didn’t understand how she could learn anything with 36 kids in the class.

“I wanted to make sure my three younger students were all in the same school and 21st Century could accept all of them. Some of the charter schools had a waiting list. I’m happy with 21st Century and I love the teachers, and I like the curriculum.”

Sean Egan, principal at Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, now authorized by Calumet College of St. Joseph, said he sees some of the challenges as public perception of charter schools.

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“People seem to think that we have low-quality teachers and students because it’s a charter school,” he said.

“They seem to think we are stealing students from the public schools. Those perceptions are obvious challenges. Finding qualified teachers can be a challenge but that’s not the case at HAST, although I know some charters have had problems.”

Egan said the number of students graduating from college who want to be teachers also has dramatically decreased, and he said education graduates are less likely to look at charter schools because of the generally lower salaries.

Discovery Charter School Principal Ernesto Martinez said the biggest challenges for public charter schools are testing and finding quality teachers — similar to challenges faced by traditional public schools.

“Everyone needs more money to work with, but we are all doing the best that we can with the budgets we have,” he said.

This is the seventh year for Discovery Charter, which is located in the town of Porter and rated an A by the Indiana Department of Education and began the school year Wednesday with 518 students.

The first charter schools appeared in Minnesota in 1991. Ten years later, the Indiana legislature established public charter schools to serve the different learning styles and needs of students, to offer them innovative choices and to allow freedom and flexibility different from the traditional public school environment.

This fall, eight charter schools will operate in Gary. Two new charters opening this fall are Steel City Academy in Gary and Heritage Institute of Arts and Technology in Merrillville, both sponsored by Indiana Charter School Board, a new entity established by the General Assembly that can authorize charter schools.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.