Oaks Academy: Vouchers May Not Be a Panacea But They Are Really Working For Some Families

Photo Credit: Paul D'Andrea Photography

True advocates of choice through vouchers shouldn’t suggest vouchers to be the panacea, the proverbial be all end all for education in our nation, no matter how much our President or Education Secretary maintain this assertion.

Vouchers, like all educational options, are one means through which we provide students and families the ability to choose their child’s school, free from arbitrary designations or systems that have for too long demonstrated an inability to serve all students.

While most supporters, generally conservative folks, use phrases like “free market” to bolster the case, vouchers are liberal, almost socialist in nature, when considered from a means tested standpoint with the mission of providing poor families with the same options that wealthier families already enjoy.

Nearly 35,000 Hoosier students today can boast direct access to the private school of theirs and their parent’s choice as a result of this program. And while that number is dwarfed by the nearly 1.05 million Hoosier students in a public school, there is evidence that suggests this effort has not been fought in vain.

Such is the case for 373 students who, through vouchers and Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) opportunities, are being blessed by the opportunity to attend The Oaks Academy. An unabashedly faith based institution, Oaks affords students a high quality classical education, complemented by a commitment to follow students as they matriculate to and through post-secondary opportunities. Based in Indianapolis Near East Side, the school has grown from 53 students in 1998 to 732 students in grades Pre-K through 8th grade, on three campuses purposely housed within close proximity of one another.

Academically, school data bear out the contention for its distinction as a high-quality school. Oaks Academy students are consistently among the state’s top performers on standardized assessments, with 82.2 percent passing both the Language Arts and Math portions of the ISTEP last year.

The schools’ 300 alumni who are tracked carefully after graduation, and the school has determined its 4-year college matriculation rate to be 87 percent.

Additionally, parental involvement is not optional for all Oaks Families, but mandatory as a caring, committed adult must participate in various activities during the admissions cycle and school year to ensure all stakeholders have skin in the game.  

While naysayers with inherent biases against private school choice would assert these positive distinctions to be the result of careful selection or “creaming,” the facts bear out a different truth. From a private funding standpoint, The Oaks Academy is a juggernaut with a reputation that invites a level of philanthropy necessary to maintain an average tuition of $10,300, 85 percent of the school’s student population receives tuition assistance. Its economic diversity is matched ethnically, with over 30 percent of the schools’ collective population being African Americans.

Anything less, according to Oaks CEO Andrew N. Hart, would undermine the mission that the school’s founders envisioned almost 20 years ago.

There’s a level of accountability that has given us strength,” Hart said. “We’re not about exclusivity or forming an elite culture. We’re going against this message that the Oaks is a private school. We’re guided by Gods spirit, which brings renewal.

With the recent acquisition of the academy’s middle school, a former IPS school that historically was one of the best for the city’s Black student population, the Oaks Academy’s growth prospects bode well enough for the school to hold true to this mission. The fact is, however, in terms of sheer sustainability, the Oaks schools are positioned strategically in an area in the midst of an infusion of urban renewa. According to wait list data, there has been a significant increase in upper income families chomping at the bit to get their children into Oaks.

Charged with the responsibility to sustain this growing high quality model, Hart candidly admits a shift in direction could be otherwise lucrative from a practical standpoint. However, doing so would diminish the identify for which Oaks has gained its strength.

We want to be diligent about maintaining this tricky balance. It’s something so unique to this place but very fragile. “The admissions pool is dominated by white families, who are moving back into the neighborhoods,” Hart added. “It would totally relieve our philanthropic burden, which would be great, but we want to make sure this unique proposition that Oaks is maintained over time.

Strictly speaking from a community standpoint, the Oaks Academy, like vouchers or other forms of choice, cannot be all things for all students. But through its commitment to service to the least of these, coupled with strengthening community school options, this high-quality option is an exciting complimentary piece to a community focused on overall renewal.