In 2010, I visited Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis that differed starkly from regular Indianapolis public schools. Spanish classes started in kindergarten. In fourth grade, overnight camping trips began and by fifth grade, so did college trips. As part of the school’s focus on project-based learning, a group of middle schoolers were working on a project about the global water crisis, planning to help a village in Tanzania get access to clean water.
Now, the school–a point of pride in the city’s charter sector–is at the center of a grade-changing scandal involving former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett (R.). According to an investigation by The Associated Press, Bennett altered the grade of the popular Indianapolis charter school while he was still in office. Christel House Academy initially earned a C on the state’s accountability system due to poor algebra test scores. But Bennett, now the schools chief in Florida, and his team tweaked the system before the grades were made public and Christel House was given an A.
Although the changes affected grades about a dozen schools, as Bennett has pointed out, Christel House has garnered the most attention. Its founder, Christel DeHaan, is an influential Republican donor. But Christel House has its own political value; it is an important school in the Indiana charter landscape.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email obtained by The Associated Press.
During his four years at the helm of Indiana’s schools, Bennett became known for his focus on school accountability. He also supported school choice through both vouchers and the expansion of charter schools.
In a city that has seen mixed results with charter schools, Christel House is one of the few that has emerged as a rarely questioned shining star in the charter community. The school, one of the first three charter schools to open in Indianapolis, has been earned praise for more than a decade for demonstrating large test score gains with disadvantaged students. Charter proponents cite it as an example of how freedom of traditional public school bureaucracy can produce impressive results.
In 2010, Christel House added on a high school and in 2012, it started a Dropout Recovery School. It’s since won a grant to develop a charter network, opening up three more schools throughout Indianapolis.
Had the school received a C in the state’s new grading system, after years of being recognized for stellar academic progress, it would have prompted questions, especially from charter school critics, about the school’s accomplishments.
Bennett says the changes to the accountability system had no motive other than fairness for “combined” schools that both elementary and secondary grades. “There was not a secret about this,” Bennett told The Associated Press. “This wasn’t just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right.”
Tony Bennett resigned from his post as Florida Commissioner of Education Thursday, while still defending his changes to the grading system. Still, Bennett said he did not want to become a distraction. “The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children,” Bennett said at a press conference.