October 8, 2023

Steve Hinnefeld: No silver lining to charter school closures

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Steve Hinnefeld points out that surprise charter closings are always bad news.

Regardless of what you think about charter schools, it’s bad news when one closes unexpectedly. It’s bad for the staff. It’s bad for the people who were committed to the project. It’s especially bad for the students, who will have to find a new school, learn their way around and make new friends.

And it’s not a rare occurrence here in Indiana. A list provided by the Indiana Department of Education includes 50 charter schools that have closed or merged since Indiana began allowing charters in 2002. An analysis by Chalkbeat Indiana found at least 29 charter schools in Marion County have closed.

The latest to fold was Vanguard Collegiate, an Indianapolis middle school that opened with big plans in 2018 but struggled to enroll students. It had only 71 students in grades 5-8 last year, according to Indiana Department of Education data, and was down to about 40 this fall.

Vanguard announced two weeks ago in a letter to parents that it would close Oct. 1. “Please know that we fought hard for you, our beloved school community,” executive director Robert Marshall wrote.

In January, another Indianapolis charter school, HIM by HER, closed abruptly, sending its 200 students scrambling with three months left in the school year. The school, which launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, was authorized by Ball State University and operated for 2½ years.

One charter-school supporter commented online that Vanguard Collegiate shouldn’t have been allowed to open in the first place, Ball State shouldn’t have extended its charter last year, and it shouldn’t have been allowed to close mid-semester. Certainly, the situation could have been handled better.

The fact that the school, over five years, never managed to enroll 100 students should have been a red flag. It reported good attendance rates for a high-poverty school, but its academic performance wasn’t stellar: Only two of 61 test-takers scored proficient on both the math and English/language arts ILEARN assessments in 2023. It’s not clear what the school’s board was doing about this; board minutes haven’t been posted to the school’s website since June 2022.

Then there was the school’s most recent posted audit, covering the 2020-21 school year and submitted to the State Board of Accounts in March 2022. The audit concluded that “substantial doubt continues to exist about the ability of the school to continue as a going concern.”

Nevertheless, the school’s authorizer, the Indiana Charter School Board, approved a 5-year extension of its charter late last year.

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