School House Rocked: A New Charter School Wants Your Kids

Indianapolis charter schools are signing up students as fast as they can find them. Will reform spell the end of traditional public education? Jeremy Baugh, principal of the new Phalen Academy, faces a more pressing question: How do you build a school from scratch?
Jeremy Baugh

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.

A few days after touring the wrecked warehouse, Jeremy Baugh is up at 5:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in May to pick out classroom furniture, call newly enrolled students, and meet with officials at the nearby Children’s Museum to discuss a potential partnership. Now he is ready to hit the streets. Only about 150 students have signed on so far, and Baugh needs to double that number in less than three months.

He starts at the Kroger store on East 16th Street, just a few minutes from the school, where he pitches the Phalen Academy to anyone within earshot. “We’ve got a new charter school opening up at 23rd and Illinois,” Baugh barks at one passerby. “Got any kids in kindergarten, first, or second grade?”

“No,” the woman responds.

“All right,” he says. “That’s kind of how it goes.”

Baugh passes out flyers while waiting in line to buy a Diet Coke—some to checkout clerks, others to youngish-looking female customers with children in tow, a few to elderly women. “All my kids are out of the house,” one tells him.

After about half an hour working the Kroger crowd, Baugh meets up with Marvin Hutchinson, a community organizer the school hired to help with the enrollment effort. The two men leave Kroger and head to nearby 16 Park, a new affordable-housing development. Starting a charter school is a little like running a grassroots political campaign, one of a dwindling list of American causes that still compel people to go door-to-door. Baugh is trying to convince parents to vote for his school with their feet, and, if need be, leave behind another school in the process. This, charter advocates say, is the main benefit of school choice: Parents can pull their kids from a failing school and put them in a better one—say, with smaller class sizes, more-attentive teachers, and better academic performance.

At the housing development, Baugh and Hutchinson deliver their pitch at each door. Hutchinson, who seems to be intimately familiar with the neighborhood, hits it off with a lot of the residents. One woman asks if the school can accommodate her third-grader. Baugh explains that he is only enrolling kindergartners and first- and second-graders. She tells Baugh she wishes they took third-graders so she could send her kid to the Phalen Academy.

“These folks want something,” Baugh says after the encounter. “She doesn’t know me. I just handed her a flyer. She had two seconds to look at it, and she already wants her kid to be with us.” In the span of an hour, Baugh and Hutchinson enroll eight more students.

From the outset, finding bodies to fill seats has proven more difficult than Baugh expected. He began with a database of about 3,000 names from Summer Advantage, an enrichment program for low-income children—in other words, a pool of families who had already shown interest in educational alternatives. The sprawling call list yielded fewer than 100 students. Next, Baugh employed a small team—two mothers of students and three walk-ons who replied to a Craigslist ad—and offered to pay them $5 for each kid they signed up. The five of them scored a measly six students. Hutchinson, who operated a nonprofit called Renewed Legacy Corp., learned about the Phalen Academy and offered the services of his organization to help with recruiting. In two months, Baugh had signed up something like 48 kids. Just 10 days after contracting with the Phalen Academy, Hutchinson and Renewed Legacy had enrolled 106. Baugh gave Hutchinson the nickname “Magic.”

“Nobody ever comes and says ‘Don’t open a charter school because no one will go,'” says the Mind Trust’s Harris. “It’s ‘If you do, they will go.'”

As it turned out, though, the Phalen Academy got more than it bargained for with the recruiter. Before bringing on Hutchinson, Baugh checked the references he supplied, from an Indy Parks employee and a local preschool, and they came back okay. But during a routine Internet search to double-check the spelling of Hutchinson’s last name, IM discovered that, in 2010, a man named Marvin Hutcherson was convicted in Marion County on charges of forgery and “fraud on financial institutions.” According to a police report, Hutcherson had embezzled more than $28,000 while serving as president of the parent-teacher association for an IPS elementary school, and, as the office manager for a near-eastside charity that serves low-income families, he stole donation checks and racked up illicit credit-card charges, also in excess of $28,000.

When Baugh confronted Hutchinson, he admitted that he had indeed been convicted of fraud and forgery—and failed to disclose it—although he maintained that his last name was Hutchinson and not Hutcherson (despite considerable evidence to the contrary). “I just wanted to do what was in the best interest of the school and always did,” Hutchinson wrote in an e-mail to IM. “We worked countless hours we didn’t bill for [while] most companies charge $110 per child. We did this because we believed in the school and after I listened to [school founder] Earl [Phalen] speak on things on the Internet and worked with Jeremy [Baugh] it became a passion for us all.”

The Phalen Academy severed its partnership with Hutchinson. But it appears he mostly made good on his contract: Teachers have called through the school’s list of future students, and all but five have confirmed their enrollment.

“It’s a difficult situation, obviously, because the human in us wants to say, ‘I understand,’” Baugh says. “He’s making legitimate attempts to rectify the situation and move forward. And the other part is, ‘Yeah, but we’re a school. We hold ourselves to the highest expectations, and we expect every employee and everybody associated with us to do the same.’”

If anything, Baugh’s enlistment of Renewed Legacy to help with recruiting only highlights the fact that administrative flexibility—a hallmark of the charter cause—has its perils, too. Lesson learned.

As Indy’s charter community grows, national education-reform groups are moving in and setting up shop. Just five years after the organization came to the city, alumni from Teach For America, a nonprofit that places top college graduates in low-income districts, are in leadership positions at 20 schools in Marion County. (Deputy mayor of education Jason Kloth is also an alum.) Stand for Children, which advocates for school choice, recently endorsed a reform-driven slate of new members for the IPS school board, who began their terms at the beginning of the year. And behind them all is The Mind Trust, a powerful and well-funded organization helmed by David Harris, a former aide to Mayor Bart Peterson who established the city’s first Office of Charter Schools.

When Harris was still working for the city, in 2006, approximately 70 percent of IPS students didn’t graduate. Harris wanted to do more to support local education reform, so he and Peterson started The Mind Trust later that year. The idea was simple: Bring more entrepreneurial education talent to Indy—groups like Teach For America and Stand for Children—who could infuse IPS with fresh personnel while developing innovative initiatives to reach the students who were falling through the cracks. Harris wanted to see Indianapolis become the Silicon Valley of education.

“We now have this concentration of talent in our city that’s doing a whole range of things,” says Harris, sitting in The Mind Trust’s headquarters at 16th and Meridian streets. “It’s essential to have that talent if you’re going to build high-quality charter schools.” Since its inception, The Mind Trust has either recruited or incubated 16 new reform programs for Indianapolis and collected more than $35 million in investments from corporate backers like the Walton and Eli Lilly and Company foundations.

Among The Mind Trust’s first endeavors was Summer Advantage, aimed at curbing the three-month learning gap that low-income students experience disproportionately when they’re out of school (when their higher-income peers are going to the library, visiting museums, and attending summer camp). The program was founded by Earl Phalen, a Boston-based Harvard Law classmate of Barack Obama, whom Phalen served as an education adviser during the president’s 2008 campaign. Born in 1967, Phalen spent his early years in Boston’s foster-care system. While in law school, he worked with disadvantaged children in Jamaica, and he eventually launched a tutoring and mentoring program that now wields a $27.5 million budget and boasts locations in cities across the United States.

In 2008, when a position with the Obama administration’s education team didn’t materialize, Phalen applied for The Mind Trust’s education entrepreneur fellowship. It pays people like Phalen a $90,000 salary, along with a $20,000 stipend, to develop ideas for improving public education in Indianapolis. Phalen used the fellowship to create Summer Advantage. For five days a week over five weeks, children take classes and participate in activities—a money-management class, for instance—designed to transform three-month learning losses into summer-long gains.

“It will be fresh,” says one new Phalen Academy parent, “a school that doesn’t have bad habits to recover from. A lot of schools feel rigid.”

“There really hasn’t been a major urban school district that’s been successful in the United States for the last 100 years,” Phalen says. To counter the problem, and build on the success of Summer Advantage, he decided to start a network of charter schools. In the spring of 2012, he submitted a 55-page application to the Indiana Charter School Board. It’s not a rubber-stamp process: Applicants must interview with the board and turn in a business plan, and the year the Phalen Academy threw its hat into the ring, nine of 16 applications were eventually withdrawn, three were declined, and only four, including Phalen’s, were approved. In June 2012, the first George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy—which Phalen named after his adoptive parents—won The Mind Trust’s $1 million incubator award, thought to be the largest charter-school grant in the United States.

Phalen, who still lives in Boston, needed boots on the ground. In December, he began building a small staff to launch the school, hiring a veteran of the Indianapolis charter movement, Andrea Goldwater, to be his operations director. Goldwater had solid business credentials, having worked as a tech consultant with The Summit Group, a software firm, and as an account rep with both the investment company American Funds and Support Net, an IBM supplier.

Goldwater made a spreadsheet listing no fewer than 300 tasks that her team would need to complete before the Phalen Academy opened—things as basic as purchasing furniture and as complicated as the six-month process of finding a foodservice provider. They snagged a hulking warehouse on North Illinois Street, where 95 percent of the seats in area classrooms are in underperforming schools—an ideal location for an institution that, they hope, will grow and improve upon existing educational conditions. Phalen also hired Baugh, then the principal of Mill Creek West Elementary School in Amo, a small town about 33 miles west of Indianapolis. A former music teacher, Baugh liked the new school’s focus on the arts. (In addition to the regular curriculum, the Phalen Academy will offer enrichment courses such as African drumming and website design.) But what really attracted Baugh to the job—and what draws many to the education-reform movement—was the chance to create something from whole cloth.  

“I think everybody in their profession needs to do something fresh, and in my opinion, I’d mastered my craft where I was,” Baugh says. “So you’re like, ‘What’s the new challenge?’ I could go to a superintendent’s role, but I would miss the kids. I love seeing kids every day—that just makes my day. I want to stay at the elementary level, so what could I do? Well—open a brand-new school.”

“We all have that entrepreneurial spirit,” Goldwater says. “It’s a leap of faith. There’s some risk involved. It’s obviously a calculated risk.”

It’s a risk because schools that aren’t performing up to the state’s standards can have their charters revoked. Over the last year, for example, as the Phalen Academy tried to get up and running, the mayor’s office moved to shut down two underperforming charters, while Ball State University shuttered seven (one of them in Indianapolis)—the largest number of charters closed in one year in the state’s history.

The closures set off a chain reaction that eventually reached the Phalen Academy. Banks left with soon-to-be empty buildings and millions in unpaid loans became skittish about issuing funds to new charters. “We had three banks that were courting us,” Phalen says. “All of them went silent.”

Even after receiving the $1 million from The Mind Trust, without a bank loan the Phalen Academy was in trouble. Renovations to the old warehouse alone would cost $4.5 million, and it was already March, just five months before the first day of school. Phalen scrambled for more money. The Charter Schools Development Corporation—a Maryland nonprofit that has bankrolled 235 charters to the tune of $680 million—came to the rescue, joining several sub-lenders to underwrite Phalen’s venture.

But the Phalen Academy wasn’t completely out of the woods, which became clear at a recent board meeting. Phalen, Goldwater, Baugh, and others gathered in a conference room at The Mind Trust, with swatches of red, green, and aqua-blue fabric spread out on the table before them—colors Baugh had selected for the new school’s interior. At the start of the meeting, a woman named Andrea Underwood called in from Chicago. Underwood is with IFF, a real-estate and financial consultancy serving as one of the Phalen Academy’s sub-lenders, and she wanted to make sure the school’s board understood the magnitude of its $5.3 million loan.
“My first thought was, ‘Whoa, that is a really, really ambitious project for a start-up school to take on,’” Underwood told the room. Then she explained that IFF had been working with a charter school in Missouri for two years, which had a strong board, much like the Phalen Academy. Despite the school not hitting enrollment goals early on, things seemed to be going well there—until earlier that week, when Underwood opened a newspaper and read that the school’s charter would be revoked. One of the Phalen Academy’s board members groaned.

“It was shocking and sad, and terrible for kids, and terrible for teachers and the board,” Underwood said. “And IFF is going to take a significant hit financially. So, as a cautionary piece, we talk about why we don’t want to read about things in the newspaper.” Then she asked if there were any questions.

A week after pounding the pavement for recruits, Baugh sits next to 4-year-old Zipporah Aycth in the sun-filled atrium of the Central Library. Zipporah, her hair clasped in pink, blue, and yellow barrettes, is taking the first of many tests she will face throughout her scholastic career, as Baugh screens her for kindergarten. He clicks through an interactive application on a laptop, and Zipporah easily performs a few simple tasks, like identifying the letter “Z” and picking the number 11 out of a series of digits.

“You didn’t miss any,” Baugh tells her, raising his hand in the air for a high-five. Zipporah grins and slaps his hand.

On Zipporah’s right sits her 26-year-old mother, who shares her daughter’s name. Aycth has been researching potential school options for Zipporah since the girl was a little more than a year old. Aycth lives on the far-east side, in Warren Township, but wanted to consider alternatives to her local township schools that were more diverse and offered nontraditional curricula. She researched places throughout the city, checking test scores and class sizes and trying to determine whether they had nurturing teachers. Then she found a flyer for the Phalen Academy, and she liked its roots in Summer Advantage. “It will be fresh,” she says, “a school that doesn’t have bad habits to recover from. A lot of schools feel rigid.” A few of the schools she called, for example, informed her that Zipporah was too young to start kindergarten. Baugh, on the other hand, said as long as she fared well on today’s screening, she could enroll.

Aycth’s ability to be selective about her daughter’s school is one of the great achievements of the charter movement in Indianapolis, advocates say. And so far, the track record seems to support them. According to a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), “The typical student in Indiana charter schools gains more learning in a year than his or her [traditional public school] counterparts amounting to about an additional month and a half of learning in reading and math.” In Indianapolis, just 6 percent of charter schools have academic results “significantly worse than [traditional] public schools in reading,” according to the report. (In math, that rises to 35 percent.)

Earlier this year, in his State of the City address, Mayor Greg Ballard touted a goal of adding 30,000 “high-quality education seats” across Indianapolis over the next decade. Under the terms of a state accountability law passed in 1999 (and amended last year), schools are evaluated and given letter grades based largely on ISTEP performance; Ballard’s plan would mean increased student placement in “A” or “B” schools. The presumption is that many of these new “high-quality” seats will be in charters.  

But in a district where enrollment has dwindled from more than 108,000 students in 1968 to almost 30,000 this school year, one of the biggest criticisms of charters is that they steal money and bodies away from traditional public schools.

Mary Louise Bewley, then an IPS spokeswoman, voiced the prevailing concern at a meeting of the Indiana Charter School Board in 2011, where she testified against the proposed opening of two new charter schools. “At what point have we reached the saturation point regarding charters?” she asked. “IPS is concerned about the ability of our city to absorb the number of charters that are being proposed.”

In 2009, IPS supported a legislative moratorium on new charter schools aimed at stopping the bleeding. Education-reform supporters such as Governor Mitch Daniels called the moratorium “disastrous” and “destructive” to students’ education. The bill failed to pass in a special session, as lawmakers feared it would disqualify Indiana from receiving federal grants from Race to the Top, an Obama-administration program that penalized states with charter caps.  

The Phalen Academy in particular helps illustrate why the fate of IPS seems so uncertain. As many as 75 of the students Baugh has enrolled defected from Joyce Kilmer Academy No. 69, an elementary school on North Keystone Avenue that’s among the district’s lower-performing facilities.

In Indiana, when a student leaves the district, money does, too. That’s because the state funds schools on a per-pupil basis. In the coming school year, for example, IPS will get a basic tuition-support grant of more than $7,000 per student. Lawmakers and school-funding wonks call this “funding following the child.” At the Phalen Academy, for example, each new student brings in approximately $6,700 in per-pupil reimbursement from the state. “The ongoing problem, especially for large school districts, is 100 percent of the expenses don’t leave the district [when a child does],” says IPS lobbyist Libby Cierzniak. “You can’t make the consolidations quickly enough to absorb the losses.”

But the idea that charters take away resources from IPS is “faulty on many levels,” says The Mind Trust’s Harris, who argues that the money an IPS school loses doesn’t belong to the school to begin with, but the taxpayers. “Nobody ever comes and says ‘Don’t open charter schools, because no one will go.’ It’s ‘If you do, they will go—and we don’t want to give them that option.’ [The funding issue] seems hard to defend.”

This past spring, as Baugh and company hustled to get the Phalen Academy off the ground, officials at IPS were looking for their own fresh start. In January, the school board negotiated the exit of Eugene White, who left after seven years as superintendent—a rocky tenure that overlapped the rise of charters across the city. The district hired a search firm to find White’s long-term replacement and tasked Peggy Hinckley, the former superintendent of Warren Township schools, as an interim caretaker. Hinckley—a no-nonsense consultant to failing schools around the country—parachuted into a district facing pressing problems: a $30 million deficit (“If we don’t correct our spending by this time next year, we’ll be broke,” she says) and 40 failing “D” and “F” schools (out of 62). In her early days in the gig, she visited 20 of the city’s “F” schools to figure out what the district could do to help turn them around. “You would think with so many ‘F’ schools that they would be out of control—not well-managed, not strong leaders, not strong teachers,” she says. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Instead, Hinckley found the schools filled with young but capable principals who are using data to drive teaching decisions. “They’re doing all the things that would make a school better,” she says. In fact, Hinckley places the blame for the district’s predicament outside of the failing schools. Partly in response to the competition posed by charters, White had championed the expansion of IPS’s selective magnet schools, which offer specialized curricula—public policy and life sciences, for example—and instructional methods such as Montessori and foreign-language immersion. A third of the district’s 30,000 students are now enrolled in magnet programs, some of which have received national recognition. Hinckley says charters didn’t cause the district’s problems—at least not directly. Unintended consequences of magnet schools—the very institutions officials such as White thought could be the saving grace of IPS—did.

“The magnets were great things, because they give parents choice, so I don’t say anything negative about the magnets,” says Hinckley. “But what happened is, for parents who exercised choice, it perhaps concentrated a population of kids in traditional schools that makes it more challenging to educate them to high levels.” Translation: Unlike magnet programs, traditional IPS schools can’t turn away students who might struggle in the classroom. They are, in a sense, the left-behind.

Still, Hinckley is confident the district can soon turn around seven—maybe eight—of its 40 failing schools. One of the solutions, she says, is giving individual schools across the district more autonomy, a buzzword long used by charter advocates. “If I’m going to hold them accountable, I’ve got to let them pick their staff,” says Hinckley. “Rather than us telling them the programs they need to use, they need to decide that.” In other words, IPS needs to operate its schools more like charters.

“Our resources are dwindling,” says Diane Arnold of IPS. Our needs are growing. The competition is great with charter schools and others.”

IPS school-board members recently met in downtown Indianapolis and, over chips and dip, tried to build consensus before interviewing superintendent candidates. Many of the 11 guiding principles they drafted echoed catchphrases from the charter movement—“accountability,” “resource management,” “empowerment.” After years of avoiding reforms and thumbing their noses at the charter movement, says IPS board president Diane Arnold, the district is poised for a change. But in the wake of White’s exit, many senior-level administrative positions remained open. Not wanting to burden an incoming superintendent with a holdover staff, Hinckley and the board were stuck in a kind of holding pattern. In July, IPS announced it had filled the post by hiring Lewis Ferebee, the former chief of staff for Durham Public Schools in North Carolina. He’s coming into a district that just eliminated 109 staff positions.

“Our resources are dwindling,” Arnold says. “Our needs are growing. The competition is great with charter schools and others. Our best competition against charter schools is to be a better district, to up our game. Charter schools are going to be here. For way too long, we’ve allowed ourselves to become victims. Everybody was wrong but us—Tony Bennett [the state’s hard-charging former superintendent of public instruction], the Department of Education, the media, everybody. We have to come to the table and be more collaborative.”

Over the next decade, collaboration—not competition—might be the city’s only hope to navigate its education challenges. In March, IFF, the consultancy serving as one of the Phalen Academy’s sub-lenders, released an alarming 72-page report showing the depth of the city’s need for higher-quality schools. Currently, the city has only 17 schools that were high-performing and served high concentrations of students from low-income households, including “six district, five charter, and six independent schools.” The report concluded that, in the long run, the city needs 45,000 additional seats—whether they come in the form of revived IPS schools, township schools, or charters like the Phalen Academy—to really turn things around.

It’s early June, and tonight is the mandatory orientation for parents of second-graders enrolled at the Phalen Academy in the upcoming school year. They’ve been asked to meet at the Library Services Center, a building across the street from the new school, which is still under renovation.

Jeremy Baugh eyes the front entrance. He has met his enrollment goal. In fact, the number has swelled to 500, putting 200 prospective students on a waiting list. Baugh and six new teachers, all of them young women, are expecting 100 families—the number of children signed up for second grade. The meeting was supposed to begin 15 minutes ago, but so far, only three families have shown up. They sit alone in a sea of empty chairs as light jazz plays in the background. Along one wall, a table is laden with swag, hundreds of unclaimed black shirts bearing the Phalen Academy crest. Outside the room, Baugh’s face reddens as he waits for latecomers, holding out hope that more will show. None do.

Finally, Baugh returns to the parents’ meeting and powers through a 45-minute presentation. He expresses his wish that the Phalen Academy will achieve 90 percent pass rates on all of the state’s standardized testing. “We’ll be the first school in Indianapolis that’s been able to outperform the Carmels and the Zionsvilles and the Plainfields,” Baugh says. “Your children will be successful in this school—no matter what their base is, no matter their level—they’re going to be successful.”

But the poor turnout seems to have tempered Baugh’s enthusiasm. “It’s this roller coaster of emotions,” he says, “because you go from, ‘How are we going to get this many people?’ to ‘This is great! I don’t even have to focus on enrollment because it’s cooking on its own.’ Right now, we’re like, ‘Where are 100 people?’” He plans to call all of his students to triple-confirm their enrollment. “They’ve signed up,” he says. “I’ve sent letters. They’ve confirmed. But you still wonder: ‘Where are you?’”

In a way, tonight’s predicament puts the Phalen Academy on equal footing with the public schools it is competing against. IPS has a mobility rate of nearly 75 percent, meaning that three in four students switch schools at least once each school year. Already, Baugh is seeing the same problem: “The culture is ‘I’m afraid to come to a parent meeting. School’s not a comfortable place. Why would I go there?’ We’re going to transform that into ‘I can’t wait to be at the kids’ school, because there’s this great event that’s going to happen there.’ A year from now, I can’t wait to see what our parent meetings are like.”

But a year from now might as well be a lifetime away. On August 5, the Phalen Academy will have its furniture delivered. On August 15, it will host a ribbon-cutting. And as the clock ticks down to 8 a.m. on August 19, the first day of school, Baugh has a new question to worry about: Will the students show?

Opening illustration by Andy Smith; Jeremy Baugh photo by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.