Indiana Charter School Board Revokes Indy STEAM Academy Charter

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The Indiana Charter School Board revoked the charter of Indy STEAM Academy on Tuesday and also approved the expansion of GEO Next Generation Academy on the same property.

The board’s vote to repeal the Indy STEAM charter coincided with a staff recommendation from the charter’s authorizer, who cited issues with the K-7 school’s receipt of financial information, compliance concerns from the Indiana Department of Education and the resignation of all but one of the school members. board members in February.

A charter school cannot operate in Indiana without approval from an authorizer.

The revocation of Indy STEAM’s charter could leave approximately 175 students at the Sherman Drive building looking for new schools over the next few months. Compounding that challenge for Indy STEAM students, another charter school on the property, Genius School, is moving to the northwest side of town and switching to private school status.

However, the expansion of GEO Next Generation Academy, which includes grades 7-12, could provide an option for Indy STEAM families who want to stay in the same location.

James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, said board staff placed Indy STEAM on a corrective action plan in its second year of operation, 2022-23, as the authorizer struggled to obtain financial information. from school. He said Indy STEAM also has four open corrective actions from the Indiana Department of Education, but did not provide details during the meeting.

Before the vote, Indy STEAM founder Yvonne Bullock defended the school’s record. She told the state board that the school had hired consultants to help with financial paperwork and other matters, as well as an accountant to create quarterly financial reports.

He also told Chalkbeat after the vote that revoking his school’s charter was a “political strategy” to allow GEO Next Generation Academy to take over the Sherman Drive property and grow, a claim Betley and Dana Teasley of GEO Academies denied.

Following the board’s 6-0 vote to revoke Indy STEAM’s charter, Bullock said he would like to pursue accreditation for Indy STEAM to become a private school. That decision would mirror Genius School’s move and could allow it to accept state-backed tuition vouchers.

Betley said board staff tried to work with the school to bring it into compliance before Tuesday’s vote.

“This has a huge impact on families and students, we are absolutely aware of that,” he said. “But it is our job to make sure that these schools are accountable, that they are actually operating the way they are required to operate under the law, even when it is difficult.”

Charter school founder admits problems with paperwork

As its name implies, Indy STEAM focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. It advertises “hands-on learning,” as well as after-school tutoring, robotics competitions, and longer days and school years, among other things.

Indy STEAM opened its doors in 2021. The state charter board approved its charter after another authorizer, Trine University’s Education One, twice rejected the school’s application. The school planned to grow to eventually serve grades K-8 in space it leased from GEO Academies Indiana Holdings.

The state education department did not immediately confirm the number of complaints it received about the school or the nature of those complaints. But certain complaints can prompt the department to order a school to take corrective action.

But Princess Bandards, the mother of a student at the school, told the state board during a limited public comment period that she filed at least eight complaints with the state education department. She later told Chalkbeat that her complaints concerned failure to comply with special education requirements, suspension rules and mistreatment of her son.

Bandards also cited concerns about mistreatment of staff and urged the board to examine staff turnover.

“I’m surprised there aren’t multiple lawsuits,” he said. “It is openly bullying.”

Bullock told Chalkbeat after the meeting that the school responded to all eight of Bandards’ complaints. She also said that she has a great relationship with the staff.

Indy STEAM fourth grade teacher Brittany Gordon spoke in support of the school. One of her students also urged the board to allow Indy STEAM to remain open.

Regarding concerns raised by Betley about Indy STEAM’s financial transparency, Bullock told the state board that he was having difficulty balancing the school’s daily operations with the documentation required for things like federal funding.

“I have no regrets about dedicating time and attention to the students, my staff and my team,” he said. “I have always sacrificed to ensure Indy STEAM Academy could thrive and fulfill its mission.”

In describing the details of the school board’s mass resignation earlier this year, Bullock told the state board that a board member resigned after a “terrible conflict of interest” involving the board member’s daughter. board that was hired to work at the school. That board member resigned after Bullock released the daughter from employment.

Two other board members resigned after a plan to improve the school using a $100,000 consultant was rejected, he said.

The school now has a new board of directors.

Charter expansion could provide new home for students

GEO Next Generation Academy opened as a high school in 2020. It advertises college and career courses starting in seventh grade and bus transportation, among other things.

The state board’s 4-1 vote (one member recused himself) to approve the school’s expansion plan means it could grow to serve kindergarten through 12th grade starting next school year.

Despite the additional space that Indy STEAM’s closure would provide for GEO Next Generation on the Sherman Drive property, Betley emphasized that Tuesday’s board votes on the two schools were “not planned.”

But he said the move could give families the opportunity to stay in school at the same location.

“This would give them another option, and another option that would minimize disruption,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a different school, but it’s still the same location and that school, Geo Next Gen, has coexisted the entire time Indy STEAM has been there.”

Teasley, president of GEO Academies, said she recognized that the expansion of GEO Next Generation would occur on a very rapid timeline.

However, the school is ready to serve students left without a school like those at Indy STEAM and Genius School, he said. GEO Next Generation has about 220 students, according to state records.

“Yes, it would be a different school,” he said. “However, we would like the opportunity, with your support, to be able to offer them the ability to stay in the building that they feel comfortable with and hopefully stay with their teachers and stay in their neighborhood.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Lawrence Township schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.