Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
WBOI broadcasting at reduced power, streaming services unaffected

Indianapolis Divided Over Charter School Applications

Since 2012 Emmerich Manual High School has been under a state takeover and operated by the private company Charter Schools USA.
Credit Eric Weddle / WFYI News

Edit | Remove

  The decision whether three Indianapolis schools under state takeover should become charter schools is creating a divide among community groups, parents, teachers, colleges, and city and state officials.

Friday the Indiana Charter School Board (ICSB) will meet to vote whether to authorize charters for Emma Donnan Middle School and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools.

To help guide its decision, the board now has comments from dozens of supportive families and higher education institutions like Ivy Tech Community College and Ball State. But it also received warnings and requests to deny the applications from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office and current state and local policymakers.

The Indiana Charter School Board meets at 11 a.m. in the Indiana Government Center South, Conference Room A.

In 2012 the state took control of these former Indianapolis Public Schools buildings after years of chronic academic failure. The state hired the private Florida-company Charter Schools USA (CSUSA) to operate each and turn them around. In March and this month, a majority of the State Board of Education believed enough improvements were made and ordered the company to seek charters for each of the schools.

Passion for and against the charter applications runs through more than 100 comments submitted to the ICSB during a public hearing and written in emails and letters. The comments, recently made public, are used to inform ICSB staff and members making the decision.

The board's official tally of the comments collected shows 67 are in favor of charters, 22 are against and two are neutral. The tally does not include dozen of letters from Howe students or hundreds of signatures on petitions collected by the school leadership in favor of the charters. 

Supporter Robert Lindeman says during the nearly eight years CSUSA operated the schools, he saw “competent administration and staff who are dedicated to student educational growth.”
Lindeman, of the Pleasant Run United Church of Christ, urged the board to approve all three charters. “Anything less on your part would be a message to negate these goals and their progress,” Lindeman wrote.

But others disagree, such as former Manual math teacher Reuben Benzel.

Benzel says only a fraction of the Manual educators he worked with during 2012-13 academic year, the first year of takeover, remain today. “I do not think that CSUSA does what is best for the students,” he wrote. During his two years at the school, he says the company did not support “some of the best teachers and leaders I have ever seen.”

Last year, the former Indianapolis Public Schools leaders said they would close Manual and Howe if they were returned to the district after the takeover ended. But now, new IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson wants to retake control of the three schools.

In letters to the ICSB, two top IPS staffers say the district does not want a partnership with CSUSA. 

Johnson recently criticized CSUSA in an Indy Star editorial and ended a partnership with the company. District leaders already announced plans for how they would want to restart Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual High School if the charter board votes against the charter applications.

Christel House Indianapolis is negotiating a deal with IPS to relocate its K-12 school and adult high school near Garfield Park a few blocks north to the Emmerich Manual High School campus if the charter for the schools is not approved.

Johnson is backed by various elected and appointed state and local officials, like Patrick McAlister, director of the Indianapolis Mayor’s charter authorization board. McAlister says if his office received the same applications for Donnan, Howe and Manual he would not believe the enrollment projections could be made. "I would recommend our board reject them. I am concerned that the schools are not financially sustainable," he wrote.

A letter co-signed by State Rep. Justin Moed (D-Indianapolis), Indianapolis City-County Council Councillor Frank Mascari (D-District 21) and various community groups, like Garfield Park and Fletcher Place neighbors associations, raise multiple concerns about CSUSA, including the high number of students exiting Manual High School to be homeschooled and whether the company could use a law to buy the schools for one dollar. They ask the ICSB to not approve the charter applications.

Yet, other organizations in the community feel different.

Garfield Park Arts Center manager Kavita Mahoney says she uused to be “very skeptical about the turnaround process” and CSUSA. But that changed. “Over the years, the school has been overall transparent about their needs, as well as their growth and success,” Mahoney writes.

Officials from Ball State University and Ivy Tech Community College also weighed in favor of the schools becoming charters. Robert King, Ivy Tech’s assistant director of K-12 Initiatives, says despite teacher turnover at Howe and Manual, both schools remained committed to dual credit courses. “These are professionals who have a heart to serve – they have solid ideals and high standards which they work to meet within the framework of each day at these schools,” King wrote.

The nonprofit group ReThink Forward Indiana applied to the Indiana Charter School Board for the charters to operate Emma Donnan, Howe and Manual high schools.

If the charters are approved, the nonprofit Noble Education Initiative would operate the schools and run instruction. CSUSA hired Noble Education Initiative as a subcontractor in 2017 to manage daily operations at the schools.

NEI is a Florida-based nonprofit started by Sherry Hage, the former chief academic officer of CSUSA and wife of CSUSA CEO Jon Hage. Other NEI employees also formerly worked for CSUSA, including State Board of Education member Byron Ernest.

The applications filed with the Indiana Charter School Board propose dramatic enrollment growth at the schools in the next five years or less.

  • Donnan would more than double its current enrollment of around 300 students to 657 by 2022-23.
  • The eastside Howe would expand to a K-12 school and more than double enrollment to 970 students by 2021-2022 (currently, the school is grades 7-12 with around 600 students).
  • Manual would remain a 9-12 school, according to the application, but increase enrollment by about 200 students to 812 students.

The Indiana Charter School Board meets at 11 a.m. in the Indiana Government Center South, Conference Room A.
Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.