State Board of Education approves grade change for charter school at center of Bennett scandal



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INDIANAPOLIS — The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the school grade for an Indianapolis charter school that was at the center of a grade-change scandal last year.

The board voted 10-1 to exempt the Christel House Academy's high school test scores from its final grade, effectively raising it from a "D'' to a "B'' once the final grades are approved next month. The board also delayed the release of grades by three weeks, amid concerns that some schools' International Baccalaureate scores had not been properly factored.

Christel House's director, Carey Dahncke, told the board his school's abnormal configuration — it only recently added the 11th and 12th grades to its high school — means there has not been enough data to score it properly. He argued that the school is not seeking special treatment, just a fair grade.

"From a public standpoint this creates the perception that Christel House Academy is being graded by a non-standard model that is designed specifically for its benefit. That's neither our desire, nor our intent," Dahncke told board members.

The school grades are key factors in determining teacher pay and school funding and are used to determine whether a school is taken over by private operators. They also continue to be political hot-buttons throughout the state.

Two years ago, former Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett secretly overhauled the school-grading formula to guarantee Christel House an "A." The school's founder, Christel DeHaan, has been a prolific Republican donor, giving $3 million in contributions to Bennett and others since 1998. Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chief shortly after the grade change was uncovered last year, and Indiana leaders launched an intensive review of the grading formula.

The newest change for Christel House would grade it based only on how its elementary and middle school students performed.

Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett two years ago, said the problems with Christel House exposed deeper problems with the school-grading system Bennett crafted.

"From my point of view, there is no debate the system we have is flawed, but we have to follow the rules that we have already," Ritz said. "There's nothing fair about this."

But other board members, including Republican Brad Oliver, argued that if they know a school's grade is inaccurate the board should do something to correct it. The board also voted to approve a new grading formula for Carpe Diem's Indianapolis charter school, but the change will not improve its grade.

"I want to try and steer out of this political discourse that what we're trying to do is finesse the rules," Oliver said. "That's baloney."

The board had been set to release school grades throughout the state, but public commenters from a Catholic high school in Carmel and the West Noble School Corporation said the state had not given them proper credit for their students' IB scores.

The revelation led to a call to delay the release of the grades and reignited in-fighting between Ritz, a Democrat, and Republican appointees on the board. Board member David Freitas argued that the problems with the grades showed a "lack of leadership" from Ritz.

Ritz said after the meeting that she wanted to hold off releasing the grades until after legislative staff finished their review of them. The dust-up comes a year after board members sought to move calculation of the school grades to the General Assembly's staff, amid concerns Ritz was dragging her feet releasing them.

The request spurred a lawsuit from Ritz against the other board members and prefaced further battles on the board.

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