Christel House Indianapolis hosted a community meeting Dec. 10 to answer questions and gather input on its potential partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS).

Nearly 50 people attended the meeting moderated by Kelli Mirgeaux, president of Southeast Neighborhood Development. Staff, alumni and parents from Manual High School, Christel House school community members, and south side community neighborhood advocates were represented in the audience. 

Bart Peterson, president and CEO of Christel House International, and Carey Dahncke, head of schools for Christel House Schools, led the meeting. Jamie VanDeWalle, chief portfolio officer for IPS, represented the district and answered questions addressed to IPS. 

“We truly respect the role of the Indiana Charter School Board (ICSB) … and we will respect whatever decision they make. If, however, they make a decision that raises the possibility of Manual returning to IPS, we are enthusiastic about working together with IPS to operate Manual High School,” Peterson said. 

On Dec. 13, the ICSB will vote on whether or not to approve charter agreements for RethinkForward to manage three Indianapolis schools: Manual High School, Emma Donnan Elementary School and Thomas Carr Howe High School. RethinkForward, a nonprofit, is part of a tangled web of organizations affiliated with Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), a for-profit charter management organization. 

If the ICSB decides not to approve a charter, IPS will request that the Indiana State Board of Education return all three schools to the district. In the case of Manual High School, IPS would present Christel House for approval as the new operator. 

During the community meeting, Peterson and Dahncke presented more information about Christel House’s school model, current success and plans for co-locating, in the event of approval of their partnership with IPS. Peterson shared the plan for the 2020-21 school year would be for three schools, Manual High School, Christel House Academy (CHA) South, and the Christel House DORS program, to operate separately on the Manual campus. All current Manual students would still be able to attend and graduate from the school.

Meeting attendees were interested in the logistics of this plan and in what Christel House would plan to do with the current CHA South building. In the event of a move, Christel House International would retain ownership and seek a redevelopment opportunity that benefits the south side.

“We want to make sure, because of our commitment to the south side, we want to make sure that ultimately there is a good reuse of this building, if we were to move out and move over to Manual,” Peterson said. 

Christel House was also asked about what the day-to-day life of students would look like on a campus that houses three separate schools. Although the schools would be independent of each other, Christel House is interested in how to take advantage of having a large number of students in one place. Potentially, expanded extracurricular and athletic opportunities could be offered to all students on the campus.

“It is our hope that while we would start separate, we’d grow together,” Dahncke said. 

A question was also asked about why this partnership with the district had not come about sooner. VanDeWalle shared that earlier in the year, IPS had an interim superintendent and recently elected board members. After leadership changes and more time for board cohesion, new options became available for these schools. 

“Since that time, we now have a new permanent superintendent, Aleesia Johnson, our new board is solidified, and we were in a place where we were ready to set about making plans in the event that Manual was returned,” VanDeWalle said. 

One member wanted Christel House to address the policies that led to the high school dropout scandal at Manual High School. Chalkbeat Indiana did an investigation into the school’s data related to how many students enroll in home-school on official withdrawal paperwork. Students that leave to home-school are not reflected in a school’s graduation rate, which weighs heavily in the calculations for state letter grades. 

Dahncke addressed how Christel House approaches students who leave during their senior year, saying, “We don’t direct students to home-school. We generally think that is not a great option.”

A resident of University Heights, a neighborhood just south of the University of Indianapolis, shared why she feels a successful operator needs to manage Manual High School, “This area deserves excellent schools. So, whoever does this, IPS or Christel House, or CSUSA, the key is, we deserve an excellent school.” 

Another south side resident, Melissa Keets, said she would love for Christel House to operate Manual.

“Christel House has such a solid reputation and current students and families are pleased with the school. Having Christel House operate Manual would give more kids on this side of town wonderful opportunities from a school and leaders who are local and have demonstrated success,” said Keets. 

The Indiana Charter School Board meeting will be 11 a.m. Dec. 13 at the Indiana Government Center South, Conference Room A, 302 W. Washington St. The meeting is open to the public.

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