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Jeremy Baugh walks across a dusty parking lot on the near-north side of Indianapolis. A fence topped with barbed wire guards the perimeter. He steps up to the battered front door of a rust-stained two-story warehouse, pulls it open, and then picks his way past chunks of broken concrete in a shadowy hallway. Since the last time Baugh was in the building, just a few days ago, vandals have knocked out a window, showering the cement floor with golf-ball–size shards of glass that look like the remains of a spring hailstorm.
“It reminds me of a horror movie,” says Baugh. “Like you’re in Chernobyl or something.” Before going derelict, the warehouse stored printing products; in the 1960s it was a showroom for shiny new Cadillacs. Three months after this visit from Baugh, the building will open its doors to 300 children for their first day at the city’s newest charter school.
Baugh—the principal—cuts the figure of an overgrown schoolkid, despite his graying, close-cropped hair. He often carries a black Swiss Army backpack and peppers his sentences with boyish exclamations (That’s awesome! That’s cool! That’s great!). His scuffed black loafers echo in the stairwell as he climbs to the second floor of the warehouse, and his eyes widen when he sees the sprawling, barren space spread out before him. “There’ll be classrooms right where that block wall is,” he says. “That’ll be a restroom bay, and a computer lab wraps around there.” He raises his voice in order to be heard over the hum of construction equipment. Crews are working around the clock, seven days a week, to have the 69,000-square-foot building ready by 8 a.m. on August 19. “It kind of feels like coming home, even though it’s not our home quite yet,” says Baugh.
This time last year, Baugh, 35, was the principal at a rural public elementary school. Then he quit the comfortable, $80,512-a-year job midyear to become the leader of this inner-city academy that didn’t even exist yet, inspired by the opportunity to create a new—and better—kind of school. He’s been knocking out 70-plus-hour workweeks ever since.
After touring the building, Baugh returns to the empty parking lot, grabs a white-and-red yard sign from his car, and plants it in some cracked, dry mud near Illinois Street: “George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy: Now Enrolling.” He whips out his iPhone and fingers the screen. “When I’m not feeling stressed enough, I look at my countdown clock,” he says. In 94 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds, the school will open its doors. For Baugh, the next few months will be a blur of hiring nearly 40 staff members, nailing down a curriculum, picking out furniture and equipment, building a playground, and finding students—in short, doing all the things that make a school a school.
In Indianapolis Public Schools, the district that surrounds Baugh’s new learning institution, 40 of 62 schools are currently considered failing by the state. Baugh is one of a growing contingent of bright-eyed education reformers in the city who think they can do better by building charter schools. At the Phalen Academy, Baugh is confident that a longer day (eight hours, compared to six at IPS) and year (200 days, compared to 180), along with a mix of online learning and traditional classroom instruction known as “blended learning,” will do the trick. In its first year, the school will offer only kindergarten through second grade, but the plan is to add another grade every year, so that the kindergartners who begin in August will leave in 2022 as eighth-graders. Eventually, the Phalen Academy’s backers hope to add 10 more schools across the city and state and enroll about 10,000 students by 2024—which would make it the largest network of charters in Indiana.
The Phalen Academy is likely just one of many new alternative schools that will be sprouting up around the city in the near future. In the past decade, Indianapolis has quietly become one of the nation’s leading laboratories in the charter movement, with 31 such schools already operating here. The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit, has announced that it will help fund 12 new charters in the city by 2020.
But as the city doubles down on its support of charters, important questions remain: Are they working? And what will become of the beleaguered Indianapolis Public Schools?
For Baugh, though, a more pressing question looms as he looks at the rundown warehouse: How do you build a school from scratch?
In 1816, Indiana’s founders set forth a lofty ideal for public instruction in the state constitution, mandating “a general system of education, ascending in a regular gradation, from township schools to a state university, wherein tuition shall be gratis, and equally open to all.” Indianapolis’s first public schools, then called “common” schools, cropped up in 1853, and a couple of decades later William A. Bell, president of the school commissioners, remarked that “the child of the humblest citizen can acquire an education that will enable him to compete even-handed in the battle of life with the child of a millionaire.”
The new system hummed along, growing in enrollment and adding more schools well into the next century. By 1965, the city had 109 elementary schools and 10 high schools. IPS hit its enrollment peak with 108,703 students in 1968, the year the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the district to end de facto racial segregation. In 1973, U.S. District Court Judge S. Hugh Dillin ordered the busing of black IPS students, a move that, however well-intentioned, sent many middle-class whites fleeing for the suburbs. Township schools peeled away students from IPS, so much so that by 1980 enrollment had dropped to 66,000, and then 48,000 by 1990.
As urban systems like IPS struggled, the nation’s first charter school opened its doors in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992. Ray Budde, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts, had laid out the new model in “Education by Charter,” a 1974 treatise that called for publicly funded schools able to operate with more flexibility and autonomy than their traditional counterparts, beyond the constraints of existing school systems, and with a high degree of accountability. In theory, principals, free from the rules and meddling of superintendents and other overseers, would have the latitude to solve problems at the school—not the district—level. A new generation of reformers, inspired by Budde’s work, saw charters as the best way to break the cycle of public-school failure.
In 2001, Indiana became the 37th state to embrace the movement with a new law allowing local school boards, public universities, and the mayor of Indianapolis to authorize charter schools—making Indy the first city in the U.S. with a mayor so empowered. It was thought that tying the schools’ success or failure to a single elected official would up the ante on their performance. Within a year, four new Indiana charters were open (three sanctioned by then-mayor Bart Peterson), enrolling 551 students and waitlisting 2,000.
As of this past spring, Indianapolis was home to 31 charters, roughly half of the state’s total number. At last count, more than 19,000 Marion County children were enrolled in charter schools. According to a study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 25 percent of school-age children living within the IPS district attend charters—one of the highest percentages of any city in the country.
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