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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

IPS votes to cut ties with Ignite Achievement Academy, school plans to push back

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Indianapolis Public Schools will not renew its contract with the charter operator that has run Elder W. Diggs School 42 for the last four years, citing issues with academic performance, staffing and enrollment. The school’s leader has hinted at a lawsuit but also said the school didn’t want to renew the contract anyway.

The school board unanimously approved the move Dec. 16.

Ignite Achievement Academy has operated the northwest side school since the 2017-18 school year. As an innovation partner, Ignite is in the IPS family but operates the school with more autonomy than a traditional public school.

The district pointed to decreased enrollment, attendance, staff retention and testing as reasons to not renew the contract. School leader Shy-Quon Ely said the district cherry-picked numbers and hasn’t considered a broader measure of success by taking into account things such as childhood trauma and housing insecurity that complicate education outcomes.

Shy-Quon Ely, a co-founder of Ignite Achievement, speaks during a press conference at the school March 14, 2019. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

“This is not avoiding accountability,” he said, “but it needs to be part of the definition of success.”

Enrollment peaked at more than 500 for the 2018-19 school year but has since dipped to below 400. About 80% of students are Black or African American, according to state data.

Average attendance was in line with the rest of the district as recently as the 2016-17 school year but has since consistently been about 5% to 10% lower. Staff retention has also lagged behind the district average, down to less than 50% for the current school year.

On state tests, the percentage of students passing in English language arts and math has dropped to about 5% for both, a more dramatic decrease than other innovation schools have seen.

Typically, innovation school agreements automatically renew unless either party acts with at least 180-day notice prior to the end of the contract. Ignite Achievement Academy is one of the agreements set to expire June 30, 2022. Ely said Ignite leadership had conversations internally about not renewing its partnership with IPS but hadn’t yet told the district.

The school launched with the backing of The Mind Trust, an education reform nonprofit. In 2016, the organization chose Ely for its Innovation School Fellowship, which helps develop charter schools.

The Mind Trust did not push back against the district’s decision.

“The Mind Trust believes schools of all types should be held to high levels of accountability,” CEO Brandon Brown said in a statement. “In this instance, we support the district’s decision to non-renew the school’s contract as an Innovation Network School partner.”

Ontay Johnson, executive director of EmpowerED Families, a parent advocacy group, said the data supports the decision to not renew the agreement. He also said both sides — charter and traditional school advocates — failed the students.

“What I struggle with is the collateral damage Black and brown students continue to be in this broken education system,” he said during the public comment portion of the school board meeting.

One parent submitted written comment ahead of the meeting and asked for a second chance for the school.

“If we continue along this road,” the parent wrote, “we will have the same negative results regardless to who is the leadership in the school.”

What’s next?

Ely told parents during an emergency session of the school’s board of directors that the school plans to fight back, possibly through “legal remedies,” though it’s unclear what that might mean.

Ely didn’t elaborate during an interview about the nature of a potential lawsuit — especially considering school leaders apparently wouldn’t have renewed the contract even if IPS wanted to keep it.

Ely said Ignite didn’t receive enough support from the district, considering the circumstances of where the school is located and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended education. The school’s homeless population has increased more than 100%, Ely said.

“I’m disappointed in some things for sure,” he said.

The plan for Ignite next school year is to find a new building — preferably in the same area, Ely said — and continue to be an education option for students. The city originally planned to revoke Ignite’s charter but has since put the school on probation, so the school still has its charter.

As for School 42, IPS hasn’t decided what the future holds. It could go back to being a district-run school, or IPS could find another innovation partner. The community will have opportunities to share feedback during listening sessions in January.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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