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Charter Schools USA discusses education plan

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In an exclusive interview with the Recorder Newspaper, John Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, spoke about the future of three Indianapolis schools his company will manage next school year.

Hage said it will take “a lot of hard work” to revitalize the struggling schools, but that Charter Schools USA is committed to making a lasting “investment” in the students.

“As a former military officer, I know that basically you have to start off with the most basic situation and build from it to create a sustainable, winning situation,” Hage said. “We’re committed to doing that with the schools in Indianapolis.”

Some residents expressed concern last August when it was announced that four local schools would be placed under new leadership. At that time, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) indicated that Charter Schools USA, a private for-profit company and EdPower, a local nonprofit group would be hired to manage the four public schools, which were not meeting state academic standards due to consistently low test scores.

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, EdPower will manage Arlington Community High School, while Charter Schools USA will take charge of Emma Donnan Middle School, Emmercich Manual High School and T.C. Howe Community High School.

Some parents and other concerned residents have been assured by the fact that EdPower is Indianapolis based, as well as its success in overseeing the local Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School.

Questions remain, however, about the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., based Charter Schools USA, which operates 29 schools, mostly in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.

Hage admitted that shortly after the IDOE’s takeover announcement, Charter Schools USA officials were greeted with skepticism from some local citizens.

“At first there was a lot of trepidation and anger at us because some people incorrectly viewed us as the right arm of the Department of Education,” Hage said. “They had a political view of the situation, and thought we were just brought here to get some of it (money), when we are simply an organization that was chosen after showing we could do the best job in improving the schools.”

Hage added that some people were also concerned that the company would convert the three public schools into charter schools. Despite its name, however, Charter Schools USA is actually working more extensively with “turnaround schools,” which are schools listed as under performing by state or local governments.

Hage believes the local view of Charter Schools USA has become more favorable as he and other officials spend time with parents, students and teachers.

“More people, after meeting us, now realize that we are pretty sincere,” he said before adding, “The people of Indianapolis are good people, and we’re finally experiencing that Hoosier friendliness.”

Established in 1997, Charter Schools USA is one of the oldest and largest education management companies in the United States. It assists corporations, government entities, developers and nonprofit agencies with all phases of school design, planning, development, financing, construction, operations and curricula.

Recently, the company was awarded several honors for successfully managing K-12 schools, including the first Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) district accreditation for an education management company.

Charter Schools USA is particularly proud of what it claims is a 95 percent plus satisfaction rate from parents, and achievement of an “A” academic average for the last six years from the Department of Education.

Hage said Charter Schools USA has an “academy” philosophy that believes in “putting students first” and emphasizes concepts such as good instructional leadership, an effective discipline code, character education and respect, parental involvement and a safe environment.

Although it has developed a model of success in other states, Hage noted that the company will not try to impose a “one size fits all” approach on the Indianapolis schools. What works for one school may not work for another, he explained.

“These schools will need innovation,” Hage said. “We can’t just come in and say ‘here’s our model, and we’re gonna’ make these schools use it.’ We will make sure everything, from academics to sports, is designed around the unique aspects and needs of the students in those schools.”

As it prepares for the upcoming school year, the main priority for Charter Schools USA is to continue to assess the specific needs of the local schools, then develop a comprehensive plan and hire “the best” personnel to address them.

Hage, however, said the process of completely understanding the needs of Emma Donnan, Manual and Howe has been difficult because Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), which will have to relinquish leadership of the schools, has been unwilling to share important data with Charter Schools USA or EdPower.

“We haven’t received much goodwill from the district on that,” Hage said. “We haven’t had access to the student lists.”

In a separate interview Mary Louise Bewley, a spokesperson for IPS, said that is simply not true, and district officials are offended by accusations that they haven’t been cooperative.

In fact, she said, the district has held a joint presentation with officials from Charter Schools USA and EdPower, and distributed letters to parents describing the plans of both IPS and the private operators.

“We have gone out of our way to be helpful,” Bewley said. “It is insulting to hear that we’re being described as throwing up a block.”

IPS has also noted that just 62 percent of students at the four “turnaround” schools have chosen to remain with them under new leadership. Other students plan to attend different IPS schools.

Hage said Charter Schools USA will continue to “get on the ground” and find out what’s going on in the schools and the community directly from concerned residents.

“We’ve been going through every single classroom observing teachers, meeting with parents and students and conducting community affairs meetings every week,” he said.

Finally, Hage stated that he understands the concerns of local parents who feel their opinions are not always heard or taken into account, in both inner city and township districts. Charter Schools USA educators, he said, will take their concerns and complaints seriously.

“We want to work with parents and know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong,” Hage said. “Parents are encouraged to be part of this process. All research shows that parental involvement is the No. 1 indicator of child success.”

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