FORT WAYNE — Imagine MASTer Academy teachers and parents plan to fight to keep their school open.
Nearly 200 parents, current and former students and teachers came out in support of the school during a meeting Thursday where parents shared stories and learned more about Ball State University’s decision and what they can do to get involved. The group met in the auditorium where student-crafted pictures lined the walls that read “We Are Imagine,” and “Save Our School.”
Ball State released its renewal decision for 20 of the 42 charter schools it authorizes. Imagine MASTer Academy was among seven schools whose charters will be allowed to expire June 30. Two other charter schools in the county – Imagine Schools on Broadway and Timothy L. Johnson Academy – were also notified that the university will not renew their charters.
Charter schools use public money but operate independently of public school districts. They have local boards, and educational management companies run the schools. Ball State authorized the charters for the Imagine schools and Johnson Academy, but other entities such as approved private universities and a statewide charter board can also authorize charters.
The schools have 10 business days to notify Ball State whether they plan to appeal the decision. Within 20 business days, Ball State would schedule a hearing for the school that must take place before June 30. A three-member panel appointed by Ball State President Jo Ann Gora would hear the school’s appeal and make a final decision.
Amanda Hernandez, principal at Imagine MASTer Academy, said during Thursday’s meeting that both Imagine schools intend to appeal the decision. The individual boards will meet this weekend to take a formal vote to send notification to Ball State, said Imagine’s regional director, Rachel Cirullo.
Teachers manned booths and tables throughout the night helping parents make calls, craft emails, write letters and comments and record video testimonials. The stories and expressions will be sent to legislators, Gov. Mike Pence and Ball State officials and compiled for later use during the appeal process.
During the meeting, Hernandez went through some information for those in attendance, but she said Ball State hasn’t been forthcoming with specifics on the decision.
Ball State officials said they have worked for two years to revamp their process for charter renewals to focus more on academic achievement, finance and governance. They said the decisions shouldn’t be a surprise to schools and that the process to raise expectations has been transparent.
Hernandez said Imagine recently made some changes in its language arts approach that hurt the school initially in test scores but will pay off in the long run. She also said standardized tests students have taken this year indicate the school will see growth in test scores.
“We know we’re going to see success this year. We can feel it,” she said.
Hernandez later opened the floor for questions. Parent after parent shared success stories of their own students thriving at the school. Other parents asked how they could get more involved and whether their students could share their individual stories with university officials.
Just one parent who spoke during the meeting expressed concern about how this could affect her son’s future and if he would be penalized when applying to college for attending a certain school. Hernandez acknowledged that with the uncertainty of the school’s future she understands that parents may choose to pull their students out immediately but assured parents that the school will continue its mission.
“We are moving forward as if nothing’s changed,” she said.
Mary Beth Frank, a fifth-grade parent, asked Hernandez to address high staff turnover this year. She asked Hernandez how she could reassure parents that the stability the school now has will remain if parents come back next year.
Hernandez said that at the start of the year, the school experienced some turnover with teachers learning the culture of the school and some finding that Imagine wasn’t a good fit for them. She told Frank that the teachers in place now are dedicated to improving the school and doing all they can to see that it stays open.
“The staff is taking this head-on,” Hernandez told those gathered. “It’s not because we’re going to lose our jobs; it’s because we could lose our Imagine family.”
Frank, whose son is autistic, said the special education program at the school is top-notch, but with the uncertainty, she’s not sure what she will do next year.
“I have to, as a parent, pursue other options. I can’t be running around at the last minute,” she said.
Beatriz Galban has two children and two grandchildren who attend the school. She also is uncertain where her students will go to school next year.
“I don’t have another plan right now,” she said.
All five of Jackie Wilson’s kids attend the school, and she said she was disappointed upon hearing Ball State’s decision. Wilson vowed to stick with MASTer Academy as long as possible.
“As long as there’s a hope, I will hang on to it,” she said.
Hernandez said: “Our intention is to give an option, a choice, a voice to kids that we love dearly. We don’t stay open unless you pick us.”