“Every year,” Whitehead says of Jordan, “the light got dimmer and dimmer, and finally he hated school.” His joy of learning didn’t return until she enrolled him in the sixth grade at Hoosier Academy, one of many charter schools that have sprung up across Indiana to provide an alternative.
It’s a national trend: Parents are fed up with traditional public schools because they are failing to adapt—or failing outright. The number of charter-school students nationwide has nearly quadrupled over the past decade to more than 1.6 million in the 2009-10 school year. In 2007, the most recent data available, the number of homeschooled students was about 1.5 million, a 76 percent increase since 1999. Many new charter schools cost the state less money than traditional schools and craft school-specific curricula, free from rigid state and district requirements. And although they spring from Indiana’s attempt to create competition for (and, thus, higher quality in) public schools, they also represent a demand-side phenomenon: Parents would not seek alternatives to a healthy public-school system.
Indiana surrendered to the demand in 2001, when its Legislature sanctioned charters. A few years later, it went further and allowed state funding to follow the student. Muncie’s two high schools began hemorrhaging pupils, and the pace is picking up: They have lost more than 17 percent of their enrollment since the 2007-08 school year.
At Hoosier, four days a week, the queue of small sedans, SUVs, and trucks waiting to drop off students forms a wide circle around the parking lot. The academy leases space in the unused wing of a Catholic school on the city’s south side. Under its “blended” model, children go to their classrooms two days a week for face-to-face instruction. Three days a week, they work at home with a parent or other adult while connected electronically to the high-tech school. Teachers and coaches meet at least once a month to review each child’s progress. “Everybody is on the same page all the time,” Whitehead says.
Coordination with parents is a given. “It took me a whole school year to see he wasn’t keeping up” in public school, says Jamie Leffel of her second-grader. Frustrated, she too moved him to Hoosier. What he got there highlights where the public schools have gone wrong. Hoosier students receive a passport to the digital age: Everyone who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch is eligible for a free desktop computer and printer, as well as an Internet stipend. Pupils still need to take government-mandated standardized tests, but the academy’s computer-driven metrics allow teachers and parents to track how well the kids are doing in real time. (They record the grade for every assignment, confirm that work is completed on time, and inform teachers that students need special attention when they can’t exceed 80 percent performance after the first few attempts.) It’s a high-tech education for a high-tech world. Parents get a constant stream of e-mails and, therefore, feel more invested. With Hoosier’s approach, “the partnership with the parent and teacher becomes crucial,” says Melissa DeWitt, the academic director of Hoosier Academies, the parent company based in Indianapolis.
Surprisingly, you won’t get an argument from Muncie Community School Superintendent Tim Heller. “If we were doing our job,” he says, “why would parents want to go to charter schools?” Heller worked in Indiana schools, including Muncie, for 32 years before leaving to run a wealthy public-school district in Kentucky. He returned last year to find Muncie’s system a shell of its former self. Years of declining enrollment has strained budgets, Heller said, and violence in the high schools worries administrators and parents. Add a high-profile scandal (a high school principal failed to report a rape allegation) and it’s not surprising that parents are voting with their feet.
In the Bluegrass State, Heller put laptops in the hands of every one of his high school students. But in Muncie, he has been ordered to slash some $4 million (about 8 percent) from the budget. Plans to install wireless Internet are just plans, for now. Teachers can’t offer the kind of real-time metrics that their competitors at Hoosier can.
Heller is challenging his staff to recognize why parents are yanking their kids. He is also cracking down on unruly students and raising academic standards. He plans to convene a meeting of parents who homeschool their children or send them elsewhere. “I want to ask them, ‘What don’t we do that you need us to do?’ ” But he hasn’t reversed any trends yet. And further budget cuts—not an unreasonable expectation as Washington passes debt off to states and municipalities—could reinforce the vicious cycle.
“LET HIM SPEAK!”
The first City Council meeting in 2008 is the stuff of legend. Republican Sharon McShurley had just become Muncie’s first female mayor. (Her margin of victory: 13 votes.) Coming into the session, it was all-out partisan war. Democrats were contesting the election in court. Republicans accused Democratic council member Monte Murphy of voter fraud after rounding up a half dozen witnesses who said that Murphy pressured them to vote Democratic on the absentee ballots he collected. The Democratic-controlled council had vowed to gridlock city government if that’s what it took to consign McShurley to a single term.