Dissatisfied, Parents In Indianapolis Start Their Own School

Some parents in Indianapolis, Ind., are taking school choice to an extreme. Bruised after the mayor closed the public charter school their kids attended, and disgruntled with existing school options, they started their own school. It has made it through the first year with 35 students, despite lacking both funding and a permanent home.

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There's something about charter schools that parents love. So when the mayor of Indianapolis, a city that's been a leader in the development of charter schools, shut one down last summer, a group of parents and staff made a bold decision. They choose to keep the school going with hardly any funding and no charter.

Kyle Stokes reports.

KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: At first, parents fought the mayor's decision to close The Project School in central Indianapolis. They went to court. They took to the streets in protest.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (chanting) We got the power. If you can't hear us, we'll shout louder.

STOKES: The mayor's office, which oversees some of Indianapolis' charter schools, pointed to the school's dismal results on statewide tests. The protest was last July. School was starting in two weeks. Many of its 300 students were looking for other schools. But Project School parent Matthew Brooks didn't want to do that. He was among the first parents to say: We will have school this year.

MATTHEW BROOKS: Parents are calling me saying: School, what do you mean? And I was like I mean real school. We're going to do this.

STOKES: And a few of them have done it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, our choices - and why don't you put your eyes on the board?

STOKES: After eight months, about 35 students from kindergarten through eight-grade and a handful of former Project School staff members are holding school. It's not yet accredited and the students won't take statewide tests this year. But they're still here, squeezing into tiny rooms attached to a church-run gymnasium building.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, do not fight over the balls.

STOKES: The parents named the school Project Libertas. And on short notice, the gym was the most fitting home parents could find to house, well, a misfit school.

BROOKS: So I don't even know that there's a word to describe here. We'd need a few hyphenations. We're an, independent, hyphen, communal, hyphen, startup school.

STOKES: Keep in mind, under Indiana law, these parents could send their kids anywhere across school district lines, or to any of dozens of charter schools or private schools accepting vouchers. But Project Libertas' parents, like Audretta Wright, do not trust those options.

AUDRETTA WRIGHT: I have to say this, I'm not prejudiced at all. But they were at a school where my kids was ignored.

STOKES: Wright is one of the few parents whose children did not attend The Project School. She pulled four of her kids out of a public school to enroll them here, at Project Libertas.

WRIGHT: And although these teachers all here are white, they care about these kids. Whether they black, Mexican, white, it doesn't matter.

STOKES: Project Libertas won't turn away any students who can't pay and tuition ends up being whatever families can afford. Staff members often don't see a full paycheck. Next year, Libertas parents plan to use state private school voucher money to make ends meet. But to do that, they'll also need to take statewide tests again and keep their scores up - something the school in its previous incarnation was not able to do. Libertas parents say they're learning from what didn't work and argue that their new school is different.

Parker Baxter is with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. He says the state should consider the old school's record to decide if the new school should be eligible for state vouchers.

PARKER BAXTER: This school had the record of performance and it should be judged on that performance, if it wants to, again, receive public dollars.

STOKES: But Baxter says that's the state's problem. He thinks the school deserves a chance to prove itself and a state panel could vote on its accreditation application as early as next month.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Stokes.

MONTAGNE: And that story comes to us from the StateImpact project, a collaboration between NPR and local stations to show the impact of state government on people's lives.

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