Single-digit skill rate. A plummeting attendance. A work environment described in a former employee’s lawsuit as “a big mess”.
Ignite Achievement Academy came and left Indianapolis Public Schools in just four years in difficult circumstances. Some Low Scores on Elder Diggs 42 School Tests – the traditional Ignite school took over – dropped even further under Ignite’s watch, while attendance fell below the district average and staff retention rates became the worst in the district.
These declining scores and other poor metrics have led Ignite to become the second charter school not to renew its partnership with the District’s Innovation Network.
Yet, despite the school’s challenges, the mayor’s Office of Education and Innovation (or OEI) – the school’s authorizer – allowed the school to continue operating as a school at independent charter under a new name.
Ignite has grown from an IPS-affiliated reboot charter school to Genius School, an independent K-6 charter school in a new location near the city’s Fairgrounds neighborhood. He is on probation due to poor results.
Patrick McAlister, the director of the OEI office that has the authority to revoke mayoral-sponsored charter school charters approved by the Indianapolis Charter School Board, was not made available for an interview. But in a statement, McAlister said the office is still monitoring the school’s progress.
“The terms of probationary status focus on successfully transitioning to their new location after the innovation agreement with Indianapolis Public Schools ends and demonstrating academic improvements over the next school year,” a he declared.
The board has set relatively ambitious goals for the school. In fall 2023, for example, at least 8.9 percent of its students must master both English and math on the statewide ILEARN test. That’s the average for mayor-sponsored charter schools in 2021, and a considerable increase from the 2% deemed competent in 2022.
A spokesperson for the OEI said in a statement that the benchmark would likely change given recent test results, but did not indicate whether that target would increase or decrease. Even if it doesn’t meet these criteria, the Genius School might not face immediate closure.
The turmoil arose even before the school’s withdrawal from the IPS. Last year, a discrimination lawsuit against the school filed by its former program director described Ignite as a place that chased away white teachers while engaging in cronyism. The lawsuit was later settled for $48,500 and dismissed in March, according to WRTV.
The ex-employee, who is white, claimed she was fired after discovering that one of the teachers at the school had an active criminal warrant.
“Morale, as expressed by former teachers and staff, is very low, and is indicated by comments such as ‘a big mess’, ‘broken beyond repair through nepotism/cronyism’ , ‘unstable,'” the former employee’s lawsuit said.
Ignite denied the allegations of discrimination and low morale in response to the lawsuit.
The school refused to let a Chalkbeat reporter visit and did not make school officials available for interviews.
“We are proud of all the growth students have achieved through the COVID pandemic over the past two school years,” Ignite co-founder Shy-Quon Ely said in a statement. “Our students and staff continue to improve, and our board and staff remain committed to igniting the genius that is in every student.”
Ignite joined the IPS Innovation Network in 2017-18, and was tasked with straightening out School 42 in the city’s Riverside neighborhood.
School co-founders Ely and Brooke Beavers inherited a traditional public school that had consistently received failing grades from the state. In 2019, the neighborhood had a poverty rate of 35% – higher than the county average. The majority of the students were black.
Ignite focused on building an uplifting, community-focused school.
“We wanted to make sure we had lots of opportunities for parents to get involved, to come see their kids,” Ely told Chalkbeat in 2018. He’s an alumnus of a scholarship program with the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has incubated Indianapolis charter schools. (The Mind Trust later supported the district’s decision not to renew its partnership with Ignite.)
The Beavers left school at the end of 2017-18.
The school built an Afrocentric curriculum, exposing students to black history and culture to build self-esteem. An Ubuntu tip — a kind of parent-teacher group – engaged the school with the wider community.
Academic performance, however, fluctuated. Grade 3 IREAD pass rates fell from 45.9% in 2018-19 to 39.6% in 2021-22; the test was not administered in 2019-20.
Under fire from the district, Ely noted that the pandemic has hurt registration and community engagement.
But as staff retention rates fell below 50% for the 2021-22 school year, Ignite’s former director of curriculum and instruction filed a discrimination complaint in March 2021. against Ignite, claiming she was kicked out of school because she was white.
The complaint of Kelly Hershey, hired in 2019, states that later that year she discovered an absent teacher had an active warrant and pending felony charges of strangulation and assault in the presence of a child.
Hershey expressed his concern to the school’s principal, Jessica English. The next day, a school official told Hershey that she was fired for “unlawfully searching the private information and criminal record of a staff member,” according to the lawsuit.
Information about the teacher’s tenure and pending charges, listed on the state’s online court cases portal, is public and not illegal to access.
“(Ignite) did not fire Hershey for ‘unlawfully digging into private information…’, the complaint alleged. “(Ignite) fired her because she is white.”
A school attorney said the teacher in question was no longer employed by the school, but did not say when the teacher left the school.
The complaint described other racial issues the school disputed, including allegations that the school had effectively forced a large portion of white teachers to resign and fired others due to poor performance reviews, and a dispute on whether Hershey had made racist remarks.
The lawsuit also alleged that Nadia Miller, the school’s chief of staff, was vice president of the company that provided electronic equipment and computer services to the school. The school denied Hershey’s request.
State enterprise records show that someone named Nadia Miller was on the company’s list of presidents before it dissolved in September 2021. Miller still serves as the Genius School’s chief of staff.
Shawanda Tyson knows Ignite has been through some tough times.
But her two sons, now at the Paramount Brookside charter school which is not affiliated with IPS, are still missing school.
“The data didn’t look good, but what they gave the kids was invaluable,” Tyson said. “They also helped them throughout their journey.”
She considered enrolling her youngest son in the new Genius School, she said, but ultimately decided against it. Yet now the daily morning meditations and non-traditional learning methods are missing, she said.
“If this school doesn’t work,” she said, “we may have to go back.”
The rebranded Genius School markets itself as uplifting “the post-pandemic child by providing a unique and holistic learning environment,” according to its description on the Enroll Indy website.
It’s unclear where enrollment at the school is and how many families have moved from Ignite to Genius. The school shares space with Geo Next Generation High School, a charter school also unaffiliated with IPS.
In its statement, the school did not address enrollment issues, or how it plans to meet the goals set by the Office of Education and Innovation.
These goals include increasing pass rates on the state IREAD literacy test for third-graders by 39.6 percent. to 74% by next year, achieving a 90% attendance rate for this school year and outperforming neighborhood schools assigned to students in two of four categories: math or English proficiency and math growth or English.
The school, meanwhile, remains on the probationary status OEI awarded it last December – the second tier of OEI’s three-tier performance improvement process, which culminates in a potential revocation of a school charter.
However, failing to meet its targets does not mean the school risks automatic closure.
“The decision to revoke a charter is serious and may significantly affect students, staff and families,” an OEI spokesperson said in a statement. “For this reason, OEI reserves the right to determine the best course of action at the appropriate time and taking into account the actions taken thus far.”
The school’s seven-year charter term ends in June 2024. The Indianapolis Charter School Board may decide whether or not to recommend a charter renewal to the mayor by December 2023.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented when the Indianapolis Charter School Board would decide whether or not to recommend the Genius School for charter renewal. This story has also been updated to reflect the departure of Ignite co-founder Brooke Beavers from the school.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers schools in Indianapolis and Marion County for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at email@example.com.