Merrillville private school barred from accepting new voucher students

Dennis Walton, founder and pastor of Merrillville's Faith Temple of Christ, at lectern, speaks Wednesday to the State Board of Education in support of a waiver request that would allow the temple-affiliated Faith Academy to accept new voucher students in the 2018-19 school year, despite earning D and F ratings for the last two years. The board unanimously denied the waiver.

INDIANAPOLIS — A Merrillville private school cannot accept new voucher students in the fall after the State Board of Education on Wednesday denied its request for a waiver from school accountability consequences.

Faith Academy, an extension of Faith Temple of Christ, earned a D rating from the state school board during the 2015-16 school year. It received an F for 2016-17.

Under Indiana law, unless the state board grants a waiver, a private school is barred from accepting new students whose tuition is paid by taxpayer-funded vouchers after being rated D or F for two consecutive years. Current voucher students can continue attending.

Dennis Walton, founder and pastor of the church and its 107-student school, said it recently hired a new principal and replaced half of the six teachers serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade to improve student performance in subsequent years.

However, the board unanimously agreed in rejecting the waiver request that state law requires a school requesting such a waiver to show that a majority of students "demonstrated academic improvement" in the preceding year, which the board concluded Faith Academy failed to do.

Board members also were clearly disturbed after Walton said Faith Academy was looking into eliminating its high school program because that would remove 17 low-performing students from its accountability calculation and help boost its A-F rating in the future.

It's widely assumed, but rarely confirmed, that some Indiana charter and private schools routinely take steps to prompt low-performing students to return to their local public school corporations.

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Steve Yager, a board member from Fort Wayne, asked the board's attorney to investigate whether there are potential legal consequences for a school that directs low-performing students elsewhere to improve its accountability grade.

Faith Academy's Walton explained that the academy added high school last year in response to requests from parents. But he said many of the high school students who enrolled were leaving Gary public schools and either achieving significantly below grade level, or require special education services the academy is unable to provide.

"We realized that was a mistake, because many of them were already far gone," Walton said.

Vince Bertram, a state school board member from Indianapolis, said Walton's statement misunderstands the entire purpose of education.

"You turn schools around by turning lives around, not by turning them away," Bertram said. "I think it's malpractice to say this year we're going to improve the school: we're going to start excluding kids.

"You accepted them. You have a responsibility to them. I don't care how far they're behind; a lot of kids are behind, and that's what educators do — you take them where they're at, and you build lives."

Last month, the state board granted a waiver to Ambassador Christian Academy in Gary, even though it earned D ratings from the state school board for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

The board was satisfied with the improvements the school put in place, even though it did not analyze whether Ambassador's improvements encompassed a majority of its 196 students, as required by law, and ignored a recommendation from state school board staff that the waiver be denied.

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