School House Rocked: A new charter school wants your kids
Jeremy Baugh walks across a dusty parking lot on the near-north side of Indianapolis. A fence topped with barbed wire guards the perimeter. He steps up to the battered front door of a rust-stained two-story warehouse, pulls it open, and then picks his way past chunks of broken concrete in a shadowy hallway. Since the last time Baugh was in the building, just a few days ago, vandals have knocked out a window, showering the cement floor with golf-ball-size shards of glass that look like the remains of a spring hailstorm.
"It reminds me of a horror movie," says Baugh. "Like you’re in Chernobyl or something." Before going derelict, the warehouse stored printing products; in the 1960s it was a showroom for shiny new Cadillacs. Three months after this visit from Baugh, the building will open its doors to 300 children for their first day at the city’s newest charter school.
Baugh-the principal-cuts the figure of an overgrown schoolkid, despite his graying, close-cropped hair. He often carries a black Swiss Army backpack and peppers his sentences with boyish exclamations (That’s awesome! That’s cool! That’s great!). His scuffed black loafers echo in the stairwell as he climbs to the second floor of the warehouse, and his eyes widen when he sees the sprawling, barren space spread out before him. "There’ll be classrooms right where that block wall is," he says. "That’ll be a restroom bay, and a computer lab wraps around there." He raises his voice in order to be heard over the hum of construction equipment. Crews are working around the clock, seven days a week, to have the 69,000-square-foot building ready by 8 a.m. on August 19. "It kind of feels like coming home, even though it’s not our home quite yet," says Baugh.
This time last year, Baugh, 35, was the principal at a rural public elementary school. Then he quit the comfortable, $80,512-a-year job midyear to become the leader of this inner-city academy that didn’t even exist yet, inspired by the opportunity to create a new-and better-kind of school. He’s been knocking out 70-plus-hour workweeks ever since.
After touring the building, Baugh returns to the empty parking lot, grabsJeremy Baugh a white-and-red yard sign from his car, and plants it in some cracked, dry mud near Illinois Street: "George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy: Now Enrolling." He whips out his iPhone and fingers the screen. "When I’m not feeling stressed enough, I look at my countdown clock," he says. In 94 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds, the school will open its doors. For Baugh, the next few months will be a blur of hiring nearly 40 staff members, nailing down a curriculum, picking out furniture and equipment, building a playground, and finding students-in short, doing all the things that make a school a school.
In Indianapolis Public Schools, the district that surrounds Baugh’s new learning institution, 40 of 62 schools are currently considered failing by the state. Baugh is one of a growing contingent of bright-eyed education reformers in the city who think they can do better by building charter schools. At the Phalen Academy, Baugh is confident that a longer day (eight hours, compared to six at IPS) and year (200 days, compared to 180), along with a mix of online learning and traditional classroom instruction known as "blended learning," will do the trick. In its first year, the school will offer only kindergarten through second grade, but the plan is to add another grade every year, so that the kindergartners who begin in August will leave in 2022 as eighth-graders. Eventually, the Phalen Academy’s backers hope to add 10 more schools across the city and state and enroll about 10,000 students by 2024-which would make it the largest network of charters in Indiana.
The Phalen Academy is likely just one of many new alternative schools that will be sprouting up around the city in the near future. In the past decade, Indianapolis has quietly become one of the nation’s leading laboratories in the charter movement, with 31 such schools already operating here. The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit, has announced that it will help fund 12 new charters in the city by 2020.
But as the city doubles down on its support of charters, important questions remain: Are they working? And what will become of the beleaguered Indianapolis Public Schools?
For Baugh, though, a more pressing question looms as he looks at the rundown warehouse: How do you build a school from scratch?