A Pioneer in Indianapolis’ School Choice Movement

by Cheryl Kirk

I am a mom of three children, and when my two oldest (twins) started school, we were the quote-unquote “family living in poverty.” We were not homeless or hungry by any stretch of the imagination, but still—we were surviving off one income while I worked as a medical assistant and went to nursing school.

I never realized how important a role my school would play in tackling some of the obstacles we—and many other families—faced because of our financial struggles.

I begin looking for a kindergarten for them when they were about 3 years old. I lived in the center of Indianapolis at that time, which means my children would attend an Indianapolis Public School unless I found a better choice. I couldn't afford private school nor could I afford to live where the best schools were, so where did that leave my children?

I did my homework and the news wasn’t good. It seemed I would have to send them to schools where children were not learning what they needed to succeed, where more than half of third graders were not passing state tests in math and English (tests we now know were too easy to pass).

I knew I had to find a better educational option for my children. From a newspaper article I learned about a new choice in Indiana called charter schools, which were approved in 2001 and now enroll almost 40,000 students in about 80 schools.

Because these schools were new at the time I was looking for options for my twins, I didn’t have much of a track record to examine, but I knew I couldn’t just settle for the anything as my children’s future depended on it.

I visited a few and this is what I saw: children engaged in learning along with teachers and staff who seemed to be excited about teaching. The schools were clean and the staff very welcoming. I decided that two of the schools I visited would be a good fit for our family, offering bus service, along with an extended school day. I was still up in the air about the process, but I filled out applications for them because they only had so many spots and admission was determined by a lottery with preference being given to siblings.

My son and daughter were accepted at two schools, one being our number one choice, and I was overjoyed to say the least. Christel House Academy, the schooI I chose back in 2005, was the best fit for my kids; it was not the “best” school (in terms of test scores) but it was a school showing improvement every year. It challenged my daughter who was a quick learner, yet offered extra help in reading for my son who sometimes needed it.

Many of the children at our school lived in poverty—some far more extreme than our family. I am amazed at how the school addressed the issue of poverty in educating children. Free transportation, free meals and snacks, free after-school programs, low-cost sports and music lessons.

Our school didn’t make excuses or blame poverty for its problems--they met families where they were and tried to do right by them. While it doesn't post the top numbers in the state, the children there test relatively higher than those from the neighborhood schools where the students would normally attend.

I see so many stories with headlines of failing schools and poverty in the same sentence, as if to say as long as you serve poor children they will fail. I am here to say: Schools can make a difference.

We can't end poverty in our city tomorrow. But we can empower families and address the issue of poverty by giving them a choice and a voice in how their children are educated. Education—this is our long-term path out of poverty.