Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Benjamin Skirvin
Finding a good school in Indianapolis has never been more difficult — or more possible. With all the competing options — a whooping 11 public school districts and a healthy offering of charter and private schools — longtime Indianapolis resident and mother of two Kelly Dunn says getting her children into a quality school is a matter of understanding, and then winnowing down, the daunting number of competing options. For Dunn, the biggest challenge was working past the hype to find the best school for her children.
School choice in Indianapolis has experienced a sea change. The result is a huge increase in the options for parents looking to enroll their children in the city’s top schools. In the last 10 years, 31 new charter schools have opened. (See a complete list of charter schools in the state, compiled by the Indiana Office of Charter Schools, including the 31 opened in Indianapolis in the past 10 years.) During that same time, the Indianapolis Public School district (IPS) has opened a slew of alternative and magnet schools. Most recently, school voucher legislation has cracked open the once exclusive doors of private education. Aware of all these competing options, Dunn readied herself for a challenging school search.
Starting her search with private schools was an unusual decision for Dunn. Historically, the Dunn family chooses public schools. “My husband and I attended IPS schools and we had good experiences,” Dunn says. But Dunn and her husband, who are Catholic, considered their local parish school first. They had good reason.
Private schools have long been considered the city’s elite in terms of both quality and cost. There are several private schools in Indianapolis with average standardized test scores in the upper 90th percentile and four year graduation rates nearing 100 percent. According to the Indiana Department of Education, 98 percent of private schools in Indianapolis are Christian. Most are connected to a church and parishioners are often given preference when applying.
“We really liked the community aspect of things when it comes to private schools,” Dunn says. “That is the biggest reason we looked at private school in the first place.”
Unfortunately, attending a private school can prove expensive. The Oaks Academy (a non-denominational Christian school) starts at $8,600 per year, although there can be substantial tuition discounts when attending a school connected with your church. Tuition at Christ the King Catholic School, for example, drops from about $6,500 per year to a much more manageable $1,500 per year for active church members.
But the state’s fledgling school voucher program, which launched in 2011, is a workaround for some families. Parents who meet income limits are eligible (Check your eligibility here.) to receive tuition assistance of up to $6,600 that can be used to send their kids to private school. However, there are several factors to be aware of when looking into the voucher program:
• Students must attend at least one full year at a public school, so kindergartners are not eligible.
• Not all private schools have agreed to accept school vouchers, so ask the school you’re interested in if they accept them.
• The number of vouchers is limited, so apply early.
There are 15,000 vouchers available for the 2012-2013 school year. When the state’s education department offered the program in 2011-2012, half of the 7,500 vouchers were gone within three months.
“There are a lot of ways to get a good deal at a private school and it was something we wrestled with,” Dunn says. Despite some attractive options, the private schools she liked are further away from home than she likes. So Dunn continued her search for the right fit.
Certainly, with 11 public school districts in the city of Indianapolis — Beech Grove City, Decatur Township, Franklin Township, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), Lawrence Township, Perry Township, Pike Township, Town of Speedway, Warren Township, Washington Township, Wayne Township — there's no lack of school choice. By far the largest district in the area is the highly urban Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), where Dunn and her husband went to school. These 11 districts cover most of the city, stretching from north of Broad Ripple to the far south side. Here’s what they don't include: nearby places like Noblesville, Fishers, Carmel, and the rural and suburban school districts in and around Greenwood.
Despite this plethora of possibilities, quality schools are in short supply. Indeed, there's no denying that the Indianapolis public school district has long suffered from an image problem. Many schools are chronic underperformers on state standardized test. The district has been broadly panned in recent years for having one of the highest concentrations of dropout factories (defined as less than 60 percent of the freshman class still enrolled by senior year) in the country — and they’re involved in an ongoing dispute with the state over allegedly fudging graduation numbers.
Despite these concerns, there’s been progress in the public school offerings in Indianapolis, such as inter-district transfers (e.g. from IPS to Beech Grove), new magnet schools, and formerly failing schools that have been turned into charter schools.
A graduate of IPS schools and a former school counselor, Dunn is highly attuned to her city’s school options, but that didn’t keep her from digging in and doing a healthy amount of research: she spent months attending school fairs, visiting schools, and considering the best fit for her family.
Indiana has some of the most aggressive open-enrollment laws in the country, and parents who are willing to make a short drive to a nearby district can find some of the best traditional K-12 schools in the state. Beech Grove, Lawrence Township, and Perry Township all have excellent test scores and top GreatSchools Ratings. Using inter-district transfers, students in Indianapolis can attend these schools in other districts. But keep in mind that restrictions — such as a good attendance record, maintaining above a C-average, and no history of discipline issues — may apply. This can be a great option if you’re looking for a quality, yet traditional, K-12 education for your child.
Dunn never really considered any of the other districts in the Indianapolis area. For her, it was a matter of location. “We didn’t want to drive all the way to Center Grove or out to Plainfield, when there was a good school right down the road.” So she stayed focused on great public options near her home, which for Dunn meant taking a hard look at the local magnet schools.
Most magnet schools enroll students using a lottery system. Although parents can be scared off by school lotteries, Dunn says her experience was surprisingly positive. She applied to three promising schools in the IPS system and her oldest daughter was accepted to two and briefly waitlisted at another. In the end, she was able to choose among all three of her top schools. According to Indiana Department of Education, the number of available seats at these high-demand magnet schools has been gradually increasing over the last few years and IPS has been expanding its magnet school options, so a persistent parent is likely to gain acceptance into at least one of their top public school choices, just like Dunn.
While charter school choices abound — and she researched them — Dunn never really considered a charter school for her children. “When it came to the programing that I wanted for my kids,” Dunn says, “there weren’t really any charter schools that matched what I was looking for.” But that certainly isn’t the case for all families.
The first charter schools (public schools that operate outside of the school district’s control) appeared in Indianapolis in 2002. Since then, the number of charters has exploded to almost three dozen. In Indianapolis, charters don’t reign among the highest-performing schools in the city — at least not yet. So far only two charters have a GreatSchools Ratings of 7 or above, three more earned a GreatSchools Rating of 6, but the vast majority garner GreatSchools Ratings of 4 or below.
This may be partly the result of the state’s school funding formula. Currently, many charter schools receive less funding from the state than traditional district schools — and they receive no funding from local property taxes. In some cases, this results in more limited school programs than are typically found at traditional public schools. However, this may be changing due to an influx of support from local organizations. Some of the most successful charter schools are backed by significant institutional donations. Herron High School (GreatSchools Rating 8) offers solid curricula and is backed by a number of major downtown organizations including Clarion Health Partners and Butler University. Christel House Academy (GreatSchools Rating 6) recieves substantial funding from the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation.
So where did Kelly Dunn decide to send her children? She says after all her research, the final decision wasn’t even a contest. She decided on IPS Public School 91, also known as Rousseau McClellan Montessori Magnet School (GreatSchools Rating 6), which was one of her top choices.
After her exhaustive search, Dunn picked IPS School 91 because it’s one of a growing number of high-performing IPS magnet schools. The school solidly outperforms many of Indianapolis’s elite charter and private schools on state standardized tests. Plus, its location is perfect. “Rousseau is near our house,” Dunn says, happily reporting that she found “a good school right down the road.”
Start by searching for top schools in Indianapolis: see their scores, read parent reviews, etc.
Check out our Indianapolis School Chooser 2013-2014 to learn deadlines, see requirements, and compare schools.
When you’ve narrowed your list to five to seven schools, start planning your school visits. Learn what to look for on school tours and beware the pitfalls of choosing a preschool, elementary, middle, or high school. Talk to other parents whose children attend schools you're interested in. Finally, ask yourself if the school is the right fit for your child and family.