A Class Dismissed
Some of the brightest minds in education opened a one-of-a-kind charter school to serve at-risk students in Indianapolis last fall. But critics say Marion Academy didn’t do its homework—and failed the ones who needed it most.
WHETHER IT WAS a crack house or schoolhouse, Emmitt Carney knew how to get his foot in the door. The federal law-enforcement agent turned educator could spot or sling a line of B.S., which allowed him to play an undercover role or sniff out trouble on the street and in the classroom.
His work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives depended on that skill. His life, too. Carney became so good at not being Carney that he escaped dangerous assignments unharmed and won commendations and awards from prosecutors and politicians. Later, as the director of an Indianapolis charter school that served the city’s most at-risk population, his past earned him a certain reputation among students: snitch, bitch, motherfucker. Yo, Carney’s a cop!
To win them over, the 59-year-old recited a three-act story: He had grown up in L.A. and gang-banged with the Crips; his mother moved him from the city to Nowhere, Kentucky, where he turned his life around; and then he became a cop and put Crips behind bars. “Google me,” he challenged.
When they did, the tale contained enough bits of verifiable fact that it took root and gave Carney a quantum of cred, the same skeleton key that once unlocked crack houses. Among the students, the rap changed and his status rose. Mr. Carney became a Triple OG. Yo, Google him—he’s famous!
The agility to climb up and down socioeconomic rungs made Carney, who had never worked in education, an inspired if unorthodox choice to lead Marion Academy; but the school was itself an inspired and unorthodox social experiment.
Hailed as the first of its kind in the nation, the grade 6-through-12 charter school won then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s sponsorship in 2014 by proposing to educate troubled students fresh out of options, ex-offenders of a kind who had been expelled, were teetering toward expulsion, or were progressing through the justice system. Backed by a judge, the superintendent of the juvenile detention center, and boldface names among local nonprofit education wonks, the school drew from a challenging pool of adolescents.
The hardest cases came individually tripwired with a multitude of emotional, mental, and financial bombs, and some even showed up wearing ankle monitors. One had beaten a 65-year-old within an inch of his life with a baseball bat. A serial runaway fended off unwanted sexual advance from within her own family on a nightly basis. Still another was caught selling a gun to fund a family vacation. Kids who came home to empty dinner tables. Teen mothers and fathers. Children of absentee parents and drug addicts. Behind every door, a horrible surprise.
These challenges dovetailed with Carney’s streetwise skill set and profile as a former Republican candidate for Marion County sheriff. But when he was asked to interview for the position of school director, Carney told the school’s hiring committee that he didn’t fully meet their qualifications. Eventually, Carney changed his mind; he was assured that his second-in-command, a lead teacher, would have plenty of experience for them both.
“I’d think to myself, My God, I can’t even convince people to go to school at Marion Academy, and I work here. We weren’t what we were supposed to be.”
But only a few months into the 2015–2016 school year, Marion Academy’s first, Carney grew concerned. He’d been in enough drug dens to know the signs of a deal going bad. The bold education plan that had sounded so good was beginning to go wrong. And unlike in his past life as a fed, no backup was in sight.
MARION ACADEMY WAS BORN from frustration, during a phone call between Judge Clark Rogers of Marion County Superior Court and Charles Parkins, then the superintendent of the county’s juvenile detention center. The judge had experienced a glut of young defendants coming through his courtroom who had been out on the streets instead of in school. “I was seeing kids who were being convicted of D felonies when they were 18 years old,” says Rogers. “They had no high school degree, and no certifiable skills.” Parkins, meanwhile, felt a good number of the offenders in his detention center were basically failed students who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t fit at their old schools. But the minimal alternative-education system offered at the JDC wasn’t much better. There, kids in need of the greatest level of instruction simply passed time instead of accumulating credits that would go toward a degree.
Parkins made an offhand remark that the men should start a charter school, and the pair quickly realized the proposition held value. Perhaps a mayor-sponsored school could become an essential tool in a broader public-safety effort. “What I wanted to see was the kids in the JDC getting a quality education,” says Parkins, now Colorado’s director of youth corrections. “When I saw the opportunity to potentially impact crime by reducing the number of kids who were expelled in the community with nowhere else to go, it seemed like a win-win.”
The men formed a nonprofit, Alternatives in Education (AiE), and sought the counsel of Jeff Lozer and Scott Bess, executives from the education arm of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana.
Bess, a former public school math teacher, had become a standout in the charter school world with a string of successes. Then the chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives (GEI), he had won praise for the development of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, a charter that grew from 75 to 400 students in an eight-year span. He created the Indiana Network of Independent Schools (INIschools), a GEI division that partnered with charters and offered a portfolio of consulting expertise. (Lozer is INIschools’s senior director.) And in 2013, Bess served on a panel to advise the state’s elected officials on school accountability.
His biggest coup, however, came in pioneering dropout-recovery high schools. The taxpayer-funded Excel Center offered an accelerated, tuition-free education to adults at 11 locations serviced by GEI. In March 2014, Governor Mike Pence signed a bill allowing for the program’s expansion, and GEI, based in Indiana, licensed the Excel blueprint around the nation.
When AiE approached Bess with its charter school concept, he was intrigued and joined its board. With some urging from the mayor’s office, INIschools drafted a proposal for the new school and submitted itself to be Marion Academy’s service provider. Pending approval from the mayor’s office and a vote from the AiE board, Bess’s INIschools put forward a prospective service agreement to assume a variety of academic and administrative tasks that included assisting in “recruiting and selecting highly qualified teachers and school leadership candidates,” overseeing special education, and tapping into its established network of partnerships to provide students and their families with wraparound services like behavioral and mental-health counseling. Given the challenging nature of the charter’s potential students, putting together the right staff was paramount; furnishing special-education services, a federal legal obligation; and offering the availability of trained counseling, a standard in every school and a necessity if Marion Academy was to be the recidivism remedy some envisioned. In the proposal, INIschools described itself as uniquely positioned to deliver on those promises. (As INIschools’s founder, Bess signed a conflict-of-interest form and says he ultimately removed himself from AiE’s decision to hire the Goodwill division.)
A few days before the Indianapolis Charter School Board was set to meet to discuss Marion Academy—which would operate at a stand-alone site to be determined, with another campus within the walls of the juvenile detention center—Mayor Ballard voiced his support. At the June 2014 meeting, one of the mayor’s deputies spoke in his stead. Their office, he told the board, saw the charter school as a component of a broader public-safety program to reduce crime in the city. Marion Academy was approved.
IN ANY NUMBER OF WAYS, Yvonne Rambo stood in stark contrast to Emmitt Carney, the man she was hired to assist as Marion Academy’s lead teacher. The bespectacled career educator looked like a bundle of cardigans and kittens, but had built a reputation as a tiger when it came to policy and the welfare of her students. Meanwhile, Carney oozed both authority with his no-nonsense build and anti-authority with the salt-and-pepper Afro he had decided to grow out for the first time since the 1980s. It was as if the ex–federal agent were back working undercover, playing a role.
But the mismatched pair, hired in the spring of 2015, fit. In much the same way Carney had used confidential informants to gain access to the criminal underworld, he relied on Rambo to be his guide to the world of education.
Rambo had spent more than 36 years in the profession as a teacher and administrator before her job at Indianapolis Public Schools was eliminated. After some time caring for a husband who had been diagnosed with cancer, Rambo was eager to return to education in a position where she’d be able to engage with students at the school level. In IPS, she had directed the district’s turnaround schools and headed its department of academic affairs and accountability. But her most notable achievement came as a principal. In 2010, she won the National Middle School Association’s Distinguished Educator Award. At the time, Rambo’s boss, IPS Superintendent Eugene White, wrote: “Her drive, determination, and expertise converted a school in academic chaos and total disarray into our highest-achieving middle school.”
Echoes of a similar challenge loomed at Marion Academy ahead of its grand opening. In preparation for the 2015–2016 school year, INIschools initiated the process of putting together a staff for the charter, per its contract. Like Carney, many of the teachers were green. Some had a single year of experience. Most had none, and were about to break in at a school where at-risk students were the rule, not the exception. “[Teachers and support staff were] energetic and positive and had great spirits about them,” says Rambo, “but a lot of them didn’t have grit, or have experiences with under-served and impoverished students.”
The next step was to recruit pupils. In their final prospectus to the mayor, AiE and INIschools projected an enrollment of 280 for Marion Academy, a number that became the cornerstone of the charter’s budget. In Indiana, schools are allocated funds through a per-student formula called the Average Daily Membership (ADM). Twice a school year—once in September and again in February—educators take a head count. Each student represents a dollar figure, and those in need of special-education services (anything from a learning-disabled child who needs a guided study hall to those with more serious challenges) trigger additional funds to implement individualized education plans (IEPs).
Marion Academy ultimately put together a student body—including a higher-than-state-average percentage who qualified for special-education funding—through a recruitment plan devised by INIschools: Carney and Rambo would rely on referrals from judges and attorneys, school principals and counselors, and were instructed to pull aside kids and their parents who were going in and out of court appearances at the juvenile detention center. Carney thought the latter idea was ridiculous—“Like these kids didn’t have bigger things on their minds?”
Drawing students was important for the simple reason that a healthy population enabled the school to fund its mission and keep its doors open. However, there were additional benefits for its consultant. INIschools’s contract with Marion Academy brought in $325,000, paid in monthly installments of $27,083. Moving forward, the fee could change based on September 2015 ADM numbers.
At some point prior to the beginning of the school year, student estimates were significantly revised, from 280 to a more realistic 170. But, days before school opened, enrollment at Marion Academy’s main campus hovered around 20 students. Carney and Rambo say Jeff Lozer of INIschools came to them with an urgent directive: To meet the amended forecast, the pair needed to find 13 new students per day before the September ADM count-date.
WHEN MARION ACADEMY finally opened in late August after three delays, 25 of the county’s most hardened students were greeted by a lone guard and wishful thinking: Please, be good.
The campus stood as a stark departure for those students who had come from the confines of the juvenile detention center. Here, there were no security cameras, no walk-through metal detector, and worse—the staff was a soft target.
INIschools provided a three-week staff training session prior to the school year, but Carney says the seminars failed to include any instruction on classroom management or how to handle “kids that all have some kind of mental, emotional, or chemical issue—and some that are damn-near homeless. What first-year teacher is going to talk sense into that? What first-year teacher is going to stand up to a 17-year-old that, mentally, streetwise, is light-years ahead of the teacher? Some of them were scared to death.”
One teacher drove past a fight outside the school on his way home from work. Instead of stopping to break it up, he texted the school’s only security guard with a tip: “You have a fight taking place on the southside steps. On the outside of the school building … 15 to 20 students have gathered so bring bodies.”
Responding to an inquiry from IM by email, Bess writes that INIschools developed and recommended a plan for training staff members prior to opening, but “Marion Academy leadership opted to change the plan and perform the bulk of the training themselves.”
Lance daSilva, an academic coach getting his first taste of the classroom, quickly realized the challenge at Marion Academy was bigger than he had originally considered. “We weren’t ready to open,” he says. “And when the floodgates opened, we were overwhelmed.” Still, daSilva embraced the early trials, and while he says he didn’t fear the students, some of what they said gave him pause. “I remember one kid telling me to stop talking. ‘If you don’t stop talking to me, I will lay you down.’ I didn’t think much of it until it hit me when I got home that night. I was, like, What in the hell just happened? Lay you down? Whoa.”
Even though Carney had vast law-enforcement experience, he became swamped with recruiting efforts and attending to the day-to-day details of running a school, and says he simply couldn’t quash every behavioral problem. Moreover, organizers originally planned to hire a dean of students to assist with disciplinary issues, but the position went unfilled for the first several months. Carney says INIschools instructed him to assume both the roles of school director and dean in the interim.
With regard to hiring, there appears to be a great deal of confusion among Marion Academy’s administrators and consultants. According to the proposal to the mayor’s office, the AiE board was charged with “making final hiring decisions.” In an email response to Carney’s complaint about not getting a dean of students, Lozer of INIschools has indicated that responsibility was Carney’s. However, Pastor David Greene, an AiE board member, says that in reality, things didn’t play out as they were drawn up, particularly in the case of hiring a dean of students. “That lies with INIschools,” he says. “Emmitt’s not even an educator. He can’t adequately interview teachers and hire the right person. He knew that. He never claimed to be that. And if I’m INIschools, you mean to tell me that they’re really going to turn a person like that loose to hire teachers? Seriously? Who would do that? Who would put their money behind someone to do that? That’s just illogical. That’s just willy-nilly. No. No.”
Carney, though, wasn’t the only staffer doing multiple jobs. “One of the things that I did for a good portion of my day, every day, was running around the building chasing kids,” says daSilva. “Safety was a major, major concern of mine. There were times when you have these thoughts like, Oh, shit—if these students wanted to riot, there’d be nothing we could do to stop them.”
Teachers may not have been drastically outnumbered; the problem was, they felt outmatched. “In the early days of Marion Academy, the staffing was more than adequate, with 19 staff members serving less than 30 students,” explains Bess in an email. “This was done to allow school leadership to establish a positive culture.”
Carney puts the number at 25 students and 14 staff members, and complains that in September, one of his teachers jumped ship for a position at GEI’s Excel Center in Richmond, Indiana. Carney says if INIschools and the AiE board members had visited the school more often, they would have better understood the staffing predicament.
Still, Carney and Rambo felt pushed to add more students, even as staff—feeling overwhelmed, too—pleaded with the pair to call for additional manpower. The duo appealed to INIschools and the privately appointed AiE board members at meetings. “We were on the front lines, so I kept thinking, Surely they’re going to listen,” says Rambo. “In [weekly meetings with INIschools], I’d go on and on and on. But there was no urgency.”
In an email, Bess says the consultants at INIschools listened to such concerns, but “every school in operation today could benefit from additional staffing.”
By September, just weeks after the school opened, lines had been drawn. DaSilva says the politically charged atmosphere smothered the overall mission, and he believes both INIschools and the Marion Academy staff were to blame for some of the early failures. “There was a lot of ball-dropping on our end, but I’m not sure Goodwill thought everything through,” he says. “I don’t think they set us up to succeed.”
WHILE THE SCHOOL leadership was beginning to show signs of fracture, an insurgency simmered. Students freely walked the halls without permission, or hid in bathrooms and unused classrooms, where they rolled dice. Others lashed out at teachers. Some—those who had developed rivalries with their peers on the streets and in the juvenile detention center—fought. Footage of one brawl found its way onto social media.
One former staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called the situation volatile: “The school was so disorganized. Students—and you have to understand that many had criminal minds—didn’t need a PhD to figure that out and take advantage of it. There was chaos all over the school.”
Parents, too, took note. Marlon Marks, a semi-skilled laborer for IPS, enrolled his son at Marion Academy in the fall semester. Though Marks is in and out of metropolitan schools on a daily basis for his job, he was surprised by the bedlam in the charter. “It looked just like a juvenile center or a small prison,” he says. “Kids slamming kids against the wall. Cussing. It didn’t look like a place for any kind of growth.”
“It comes down to, are we going to put some for-real resources behind it, or are we just faking it? … I’m not going to be part of smoke and mirrors.”
Marks’s son was disturbed by the atmosphere inside the school. “We were in a car one time, and he seemed kind of quiet,” says Marks. “I asked him what was wrong. He just burst into tears. He said he was tired of seeing everything. Constant fights. Daily threats.”
Diana Brunner says her son brought home a series of disturbing complaints about frequent fights and students hiding weapons and drugs on the school grounds. “Originally, I sent him there as kind of an eye-opener,” she says. “But I’ll never, ever send my son to a school like that again. It was a terrible experience.”
The curriculum INIschools put in place seemed to exacerbate the students’ restlessness. Developed by GEI and based on its popular Excel model, the format required students to cover material at a breakneck pace in 90-minute periods. The Excel Centers were considered an unqualified success, but they drew from a vastly different population than Marion Academy: self-motivated adults and older teens versus troubled adolescents, some with little choice in the matter. By design, a portion of the new school’s students were under court order to attend.
Bess responds in an email that Excel was only meant to be a “starting point,” and that “customizations are necessary for nearly every school because student needs will dictate variation from the model,” a viewpoint Lozer shares. Yet change didn’t come fast enough, and the integrity of the classroom deteriorated, says the anonymous staff member: “It was hard to watch that kind of destruction. It broke my heart.”
DaSilva felt Marion Academy was breaking something else: the promise it had made to parents and students. “I reached the point where I was literally sick to my stomach every morning before school,” he says. “I’d think to myself, Oh my God—I can’t even convince people to go to school at Marion Academy, and I work here. We weren’t what we were supposed to be.”
THOUGH SEPTEMBER’S ADM count revealed a higher-than-anticipated enrollment of 191 students, bad news at Marion Academy continued to multiply.
Bess called Carney and Rambo to a meeting on September 25, in which he and Lozer offered to terminate and/or amend INIschools’s agreement with the charter, but wanted to continue to service special education. By that point, Lozer felt the relationship with school leaders was damaged. In his view, they had turned a deaf ear to INIschools’s advice. The school leaders declined the offer; Carney thought the proposition had a whiff of blame-shifting.
Less than two weeks later, INIschools announced that a revised budget prepared for the October 7 school board meeting showed that Marion Academy stood to lose close to $200,000 in its first year of operation. AiE board member Greene had reservations about financing from the start. “Because of what’s needed for the students—things like special ed, special needs, student coaching—it’s more costly to run than a traditional school,” he says. “You can’t get there with just Department of Education dollars. You need more than that to run this school effectively.”
Soon thereafter, Carole Craig, an educational consultant and a member of the local NAACP’s education committee, visited the school to conduct an unsolicited survey. Craig, a retired educator who spent 37 years with IPS in various capacities, had heard about the school when then-Mayor Ballard began talking about making education one of the pillars of a plan to combat a gun-violence epidemic sweeping the city. She was leery of Marion Academy. “To well-meaning people, it sounded like a good idea,” she says. “But, for those of us who understand, we were cautious from the get.” Craig was concerned the charter school, like the prison system, would become a warehouse for problems and that its students would become throwaways.
When she arrived at Marion Academy, Craig found Carney and Rambo to be passionate advocates for the students, and appreciated the administrators’ openness. However, their enthusiasm couldn’t mask the deficiencies revealed by Craig’s survey: Children were “running amok”; there weren’t mental-health services on site, or a social worker or counselor; IEPs for special-education students hadn’t been implemented or even drawn up; and in place of special-education teachers were coordinators who seemed to spend little, if any, time in the classroom.
“If you’re not doing all of these things, then you’re hurting these students and doing them a disservice. You’re deceiving an entire community,” she says. “If you’re going to form this kind of school, you need to have done a thorough analysis, done all of the background work to determine what’s necessary.” Though Bess responds that the mayor’s office has a rigorous process for evaluating prospective charter schools, and that Marion Academy passed that test, to Craig’s eye, sufficient groundwork hadn’t been laid, and worse, the staff was inexperienced and untrained in urban education. “When you’re dealing with children who have failed in the regular system, they’re going to need teachers who understand emotional intelligence, trauma. Plus, they have to be highly versed in the curriculum. Let me put it another way: There are a lot of teachers out there who can only teach average or gifted children; these are special students who need special teachers.”
She made a list of recommendations, then set up meetings with Lozer. “I didn’t get the response that I thought was needed,” Craig says. “He seemed not to take full ownership. He talked a lot about the Excel Center. He distanced himself from Marion Academy and threw a lot back on the staff. We didn’t get anywhere.” But Lozer contends in an email, “We took all concerns seriously.”
Later in October, a chance visit to Marion Academy from a Child Advocates representative—an adjunct IUPUI professor with an expertise in education—confirmed many of Craig’s findings and put a finer point on others. Mary Jo Dare, a former IPS director of special education/student services, came to the school on behalf of a student. After meeting with personnel, Dare helped herself to a tour of the school. “Kids were out of class and shooting baskets,” she says. “Some were loitering in the halls. Things were stacked all over the place. It wasn’t clean. It didn’t look like a school at all.” Dare was surprised. She held Goodwill Education Initiatives and INIschools in high regard, and was particularly impressed with the Excel Center programming. “I knew the school was based on the Excel model, but I didn’t see anything that even came close to that. Originally, I thought that maybe I’d come on a bad day. That wasn’t the case at all.”
Shauna Anderson enrolled her son because, she says, the school sounded like the type of place that could work with a child who had an attention-deficit disorder and needed an IEP. “It was the worst decision I ever made in the sense that they didn’t help him at all,” she says. “They made promises they couldn’t keep. Nothing was in place to do these programs. I feel like I took my son out of an A school and put him into an F one.” Anderson threatened to file a formal complaint with the Indiana Department of Education, but held off when Carney met with her to resolve the issue. “There was just no structure,” Anderson says. “No nothing. It was just kind of a free-for-all.”
Dare made follow-up calls to area schools and other service providers who had clients at Marion Academy and discovered that what she experienced there was not atypical. To Dare, it looked as though the school might be violating the law for special education. “I asked about assessments—[the special-education coordinators] didn’t have any idea of how to do that. If students aren’t getting the special-education services they need [based on those assessments], the ones required by their IEPs—that’s a violation of federal law.” Dare says that the school didn’t have a social worker or counselor, “and I cannot imagine that a number of these students don’t have counseling or a related service written into their IEPs. I asked how much time the special-education people actually spend in the classroom. I didn’t get an answer.”
Her verdict was stark: “They should just start over. I think once you put kids in an alternative program like this, you put them in a position for dropout. I saw a lot of kids wandering the hall. Most of those students were already behind academically. I’m worried they’re going to leave [Marion Academy] even further behind. Their neighborhood schools aren’t meeting their needs—I get that. But this school is worse.”
In an email response, Bess writes that INIschools has “an outstanding track record for serving special-education students and going far above the letter of the law. Staff at INIschools provided sound advice and guidance to the leadership of Marion Academy with regards to their responsibilities under the law.”
At the end of October, Bess stepped down from the AiE board. In a resignation letter, he wrote: “As President of Goodwill Education Initiatives, which includes INIschools as a related entity, it is clear that I have an inherent conflict given the business relationship between Marion Academy and INIschools. I believe it is in the best interests of all parties for me to tender my resignation to remove any appearance of a conflict.”
Bess says his departure had been planned since the beginning of his involvement. But by the time he stepped down, the entanglement of INIschools and the Marion Academy leadership had bewildered the school’s front-line staff members. Bess claims that he was “unaware of any confusion” due to his dual role, but Carney says that at one point, Lozer addressed the Marion Academy staff to clarify that Goodwill wasn’t actually running the school. DaSilva, for one, felt caught in the middle. “I was constantly trying to figure out who was in control—who actually had the power to make things happen.”
Confusion, inaction, and frustration at Marion Academy coalesced after the death of one of its students. On November 4, Nigel Willis, 18, was shot and killed a block away from his home just hours after he’d been released from jail. His classmates were visibly upset the next morning, and Rambo asked INIschools to provide grief counseling for the children. “We had a kid murdered in cold blood,” Rambo says. “Everyone knew him. Dealing with that is way out of my lane.” Unbeknownst to Rambo, Lozer had contacted Carney with an offer to provide counselors from the Adult and Child Center. However, Carney declined the overture because the group hadn’t been in the building to that point—the counselors’ presence, he thought, would do more harm than good.
IN EARLY MARCH, I visited the school, four months after Willis’s death. The pain of that frustrating time hadn’t subsided as Rambo waited for her old boss, former IPS Superintendent Eugene White, to address the Marion Academy staff. The school’s first 80 days had been marked by 180 reported behavioral incidents, 53 of which were determined to be major violations: criminal arrests, assaults, violent threats, and drug and weapon possessions. “Sometimes,” she said, “I think some of our students would be better off in jail. They’re safer there. Isn’t that a horrible thing to say?” Rambo stretched a thin smile and sighed, then left her classroom to introduce White.
Rambo had invited White to rally the troops and provide the staff with a final push to take them through the end of the school year. By January, eight from the original staff of 14 had quit. The remaining group, which had been idling over coffee, snapped to life when White took the floor. “What you’re doing is what I’d call a missionary venture, because you don’t get paid enough to do it,” White said. “You’re dealing with kids who need a third, fourth, and fifth opportunity. These kids have seen everything but don’t understand a thing. Maybe they’ll make it. Maybe they won’t. There’s a line, and you are the difference between maybe and maybe not.”
When White finished, a teacher presented him with a Marion Academy paperweight, and explained the school staff displayed identical totems in their classrooms. “You mean y’all have these out on your desks? In the classroom?” White asked. He shook his head while juggling the paperweight from palm to palm to feel its heft. “Where I come from, this is a deadly weapon.”
By White’s visit, Carney had already foreseen his own demise in a flurry of paperwork. In January, the school received high marks from the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation on a quarterly compliance report, one largely driven by statistical data. In late February, however, Judge Rogers received a Notice of Deficiency letter from Ahmed Young, new Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s director of that office.
Young indicated the school had failed to achieve the goals of the charter agreement. Marion Academy was being put on probation for violations in several areas, including student safety, inadequate staffing levels, and neglecting to provide wraparound services. With regard to the discrepancy between the favorable compliance report and the deficiency notice—documents issued within four weeks of one another—Young says his office was responding quickly to concerns from community stakeholders and people within the school.
Shortly before the letter from the mayor’s office arrived, a Marion Academy board member put Carney and Rambo under review. A matters-of-concern report was drafted and distributed to the charter school’s leaders. The document detailed unflattering allegations of the pair’s performance. Among other things, Carney and Rambo were dinged for failing to implement suggestions from the consultant; poor communication; and deviating from duties and practices outlined by the board. Carney prepared a point-by-point rebuttal and asked to address the accusations at a board meeting, but felt he was given inadequate time (30 minutes) to go over the concerns.
On March 15, three weeks after Marion Academy received its notice of deficiency, Carney and Rambo were called into the juvenile detention center for a spur-of-the-moment, early-morning meeting. Fifteen minutes later, they left the building—out of a job.
EMMITT CARNEY has a question: “How did I go from hero to zero? Can you tell me that?” Months after his firing, the lack of an answer dogs him.
Carney talks from his cell phone. It’s late. He’s outside a convenience store, idling in his car on the way back from practice for a traveling youth baseball team he helps coach. While he revisits the events of his dismissal from the charter school, his phone pings. He shares the text. “… do you have 40 dollars so I can buy me sum food?” The message, punctuated with a smiley emoji and another of a flexing bicep, is from one of his former Marion Academy students. Carney gets them all the time. “Sad, isn’t it?”
In February, even before his dismissal, Carney had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Marion Academy. At the time this article went to press, the matter had not been resolved.
Still, he and Rambo continue to provide counsel and the occasional car ride to the kids. Or a bite to eat, a few bucks, or a break. Rambo says the students she speaks with remain upset that she and Carney are no longer with the school, but “I tell them, ‘Don’t jeopardize your education because of adult issues,’” she says.
Young of the mayor’s office says the charter operators are fixing their issues. Funding remains a challenge, but Young and the school’s leadership are working on grants and alternative sources of revenue. “We’re optimistic about the future for Marion Academy,” says Young.
When asked if it’s possible organizers failed because they didn’t do their homework, and put a staff largely comprised of first-year teachers and a first-time school director in a no-win situation, school founder Rogers stood behind his judgment. “You’ve got to remember, there isn’t another school like this in the United States,” he says. “We looked everywhere. There are some that are similar, but none that are exactly like this. So, if teachers weren’t prepared, how could you have prepared them for something that had never been done before? I mean, we looked everywhere for a model, and there wasn’t one.”
Bess says Marion Academy will live or die based on its response to adversity. “The big idea always hits reality, and you have to make adjustments,” he says. “The really successful schools make those adjustments, particularly through the first two years. The ones who don’t, struggle. If they make those changes, they have a shot to create something that’s truly groundbreaking. If they don’t … it will be a different outcome.”
For Greene, the level of commitment will determine whether he stays on the AiE board. “It comes down to, are we going to put some for-real resources behind it, or are we just faking it?” he asks. “I’m not going to be part of smoke and mirrors. We need some money. You can’t do this on a whim and prayer and be a success for the kids.”
The second year of the school is set to start this month. But for now, the end result for some has been regret.
“From the moment I interviewed to when we opened, I was always in it to win it,” says daSilva, who resigned in January. “Not once did I ever think we were screwing these kids over. Until I did.”