Indy’s Catholic-to-charter school experiment comes to an end

Any other week, the announcement that the Padua Academy and Andrew Academy charter schools in Indianapolis were giving up their charters would have been big education news. Last week, not so much. The story got buried under reports of alleged ISTEP+ cheating at Flanner House Elementary charter school.

It was certainly a big deal when Padua Academy and Andrew Academy opened as charter schools, however. Formerly Catholic schools, they converted to publicly funded charter schools in 2010, a time when Catholic schools were struggling financially.

Rather than close the schools, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis created an independent board, ADI Charter Schools Inc., which got a charter from the Indianapolis mayor’s office to operate the schools – in the same buildings and with many of the same students, but without religious education. “These two schools are the first in the nation to be chartered by an archdiocese through the establishment of an independent board,” the ADI Charter website says in a history of the schools.

They did well academically for a time but have struggled recently. In spring 2014, only 39.7 percent of Padua students and 31.7 percent of Andrew students passed both the math and English ISTEP+ exams.

The ADI Charters board said it will give up the charters after the 2014-15 school year in the best interest of the students. Plans call for converting Padua Academy back to a Catholic school and finding a different organization to run Andrew Academy.

Almost all the students at Andrew Academy are African-American and nearly all the Padua students are Hispanic. Most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Brandon Brown, director of charter schools for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, attributed the drop-off in performance to leadership and staff turnover and “a lack of clarity” between the archdiocese and the board of directors. Brown said the decision to give up the charters was made solely by the ADI Charter Schools board in consultation with the archdiocese. The mayor’s office supports the decision, he said.

It’s worth noting the landscape has changed for charter and religious schools. In 2010, the charter sector was growing at the expense of Catholic and other private schools. If parents wanted to keep their kids out of Indianapolis Public Schools, they could pay tuition or choose a free charter school.

Indiana’s creation of an expansive school voucher program in 2011 turned things around. The program was sold as an endorsement of school choice, but it could also be seen as a taxpayer bailout of struggling religious schools.

Now, virtually all Padua Academy students will qualify for vouchers and could stay at the school after it becomes a Catholic school, paying little tuition. “My understanding is that with the advent of vouchers, it now becomes possible for the archdiocese to operate Padua Academy as a Catholic school, execute its educational model with increased fidelity, and remain financially stable,” Brown said.

I’ve noted previously that charter schools in Indy serve a smaller percentage of students who are English Language Learners than do Indianapolis Public Schools. The charter sector has been making progress on that front; but losing Padua Academy, where two-thirds of students are ELL, is a setback.

Brown said Christel House Academy West, a charter school that opened this month, is expected to serve many Hispanic students; and one-year-old Enlace Academy and Excel Center at Lafayette Square will continue to serve many English Language Learners.

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