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GARY — When Calumet College of St. Joseph took over as authorizer of Charter School of the Dunes in 2013, it began restructuring the school to improve academics, finances and school culture.

Chartered in 2003, the school lost its original Ball State University authorization in 2015 after years of academic failure. Among changes made by new authorizer Calumet College was eliminating its high school.

Calumet College also authorizes Hammond Academy of Science and Technology.

A few miles away, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, a K-through-12 school first chartered in 2003, learned this year it would lose Ball State University as authorizer. It announced last week it will partner with Indianapolis-based Phalen Leadership Academies.

Bowman became self-managed this school year when it did not renew its contract with Chicago-based management company, American Quality Schools.

New leadership, new culture

Charter School of the Dunes, which has had numerous principals, severed ties with founder Danielle Sleight last year. The School Board adopted the president/principal model of leadership found at some area Catholic schools.

Eight months ago, Joi Patterson left her position as Calumet College's vice president of academic affairs and chief operating officer to become the charter school's new president.

Charter School of the Dunes has been graded F for several years, something Patterson is eager to change.

"With change comes information, and the only way to get accurate information is to be here," she said.

"I don't have any friendships here. I don't owe anybody anything. My interest is solely for the kids."

Patterson said not only must teachers and students be held accountable for the school's grade but also parents, who must play a role. She said she is trying to create a culture change where parents feel comfortable being involved. 

"We find that in high-poverty communities, parents don't feel empowered. This year has been about trying to empower parents to hold us accountable. I tell parents, I blame you for everything," she said.

"If you come at the end of the year and you say, I never saw this or my kids are not getting homework, then where were you? You need to come into the school. You need to meet with the teachers. You need to complain about the teachers. You need to meet with the administrator. You need to meet with me. Hold your school accountable."

Patterson said the school lost about 200 students when Calumet College eliminated the high school last year. She said the high school was too small to provide enough electives, and some parents withdrew elementary students when they had to transfer high-schoolers to other schools, she said. 

Student enrollment is approximately 500, with kindergarten the biggest class. The $13 million building, constructed in 2013, has a 650-student capacity. The charter school hired about seven new teachers this year.

Patterson said although the school grade has not improved, 80 percent of students showed growth, improving their scores by 5 points or more. She said the charter school includes transient and homeless students. She said about 40 percent of the students are new each year, and many of them enter the school two to three grades behind.

About 20 percent of students are special needs students, many of whom are required to take an ISTEP-Plus exam that often proves difficult.

Patterson said legacy students -- those enrolled at the charter school three years or more -- do pass the state-mandated exam.

"What we want to see is growth among our students, and we are seeing that," she said.

Connie Smith, principal for grades four through eight, said parents are feeling more welcomed, and they have a monthly breakfast and also work with the Parents as Partners organization.

Bowman also on new path?

Thea Bowman's High grade dropped from a B to a C this year, and the elementary school received a D, giving the academy an overall grade of D.

The school has a total enrollment of 1,268 students, with 608 in grades seven through 12 at the high school.

Principal Sarita Stevens said Bowman has implemented the state's 8-Step Process of learning. She said they have teamed with Gary Area Career Center, and Bowman students may take welding, certified nursing assistant classes, cosmetology and other certificate programs at it.

"The instructional process for students in K-12 is the 8-Step process. It's data-driven," she said.

The charter school uses Northwest Evaluation Association testing to monitor students' progress.

"We go by those scores to create an individual plan for each student," Stevens said.

Bowman also has built a strong basketball program, which is a draw for some parents. The Eagles have won or been runners-up for several years at the state basketball championships.

As with Charter School of the Dunes, about 20 percent of Bowman students also are special education students.

The Drexel Foundation holds Bowman's charter and oversees policies and procedures.

In assessing Bowman's charter, Ball State asked Drexel Foundation to address 17 issues a year ago and renewed its charter for only one year; renewals can range from one year to five years. In addition, Ball State asked Michigan-based Brian L. Carpenter PhD & Associates LLC to audit the charter school. 

As part of its Jan. 14 report, the firm recommended nonrenewal of Drexel Foundation, suggesting Ball State identify other operators to contract with a new board at Thea Bowman effective July 1.

Parent Tawanna Staples said Drexel Foundation does not listen to student's families. She said a bond company, that owns the building, has asked every Drexel member step down to help the school retain its Ball State charter.

Several Drexel Foundation board members have been unwilling to step down.

Drexel Foundation President Keisha White said the Drexel has withdrawn its request for an appeal to Ball State. It will lose Ball State authorization effective June 30.

Instead, board members are planning to have the Thea Bowman Leadership Academy partner with Phalen Leadership Academies and will seek authorization through the Indiana Charter School Board.

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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.