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Public hearing
Carpe Diem charter school: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Summit (Eicher Commons), 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd.
State officials did not transcribe or record comments made at a hearing a year ago on the proposed Thurgood Marshall Academy. Only one state charter board member attended.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools but exempt from most regulations placed on neighborhood schools.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
A proposed grade 6-12 charter school run by Carpe Diem has applied to open this fall at The Summit on the former Taylor University campus on West Rudisill Boulevard.

Rise of a shadow school

Carpe Diem charter school appears to have no local student or parent interest, but it does have a plan to collect as much as $550,000 a year in rent from Indiana taxpayers. With three Fort Wayne charter schools set to close, efforts are under way to keep the money flowing to schools promising more than they so far have delivered.

An Indianapolis board has been in talks with the for-profit Ambassador Enterprises to bring Carpe Diem to The Summit, the former Taylor University campus on Rudisill Boulevard. The Indiana Charter School Board gave just 10 days’ notice of a public hearing on the proposal. The state board will have the final say, but it appears to have granted Carpe Diem a charter last year for an Indianapolis school with conditional approval to “replicate” the model at five other locations, including Fort Wayne.

‘Blended’ learning

If approved, the new school would open next fall. Carpe Diem students in grades 6-12 receive primarily online instruction, even in physical education. The management company refers to a “blended-learning model.” Photos and videos resemble call center operations, with uniformed students sitting in cubicles before computer screens.

“We’re going against hundreds of years of ‘that’s the way it’s always been done,’ ” the school’s dean of students told the Hechinger Report, an independent education news organization.

Indeed. The proposed budget for the Indianapolis school showed no money earmarked for library materials, extra-curricular activities or sports. Carpe Diem schools have no science labs, no gymnasiums, no art supplies, no cafeteria. Students bring a sack lunch or buy a “pre-made lunch provided by local vendors,” according to the student handbook. Attendance is not taken by teachers – students are issued a micro-chipped ID/attendance card to wave at a sensor as they enter or exit the school. Messenger bags from Staples are recommended; other large bags and backpacks are prohibited. Students may not use cellphones in the cubicle-filled “learning center” but may request permission to leave the area to place calls, according to the handbook.

“Carpe Diem has successfully substituted technology for labor,” writes Goldwater Institute blogger Matthew Ladner of his visit to the Yuma, Ariz., campus. “With seven grade levels and 240 students they have only one math teacher and one aide who focuses on math.”

But the Arizona school has drawn questions, as well.

“In spring 2010, the company that administers the (Arizona standardized test), Pearson Education, flagged Carpe Diem’s sophomore AIMS reading test for having a higher-than-average number of erasure marks,” according to a 2011 report in the Arizona Republic. “Flagging means the state gets an alert. Pearson’s report said a group of 27 Carpe Diem students who took the AIMS reading test had a total number of wrong-to-right erasure marks seven times as high as the state average. The state has no plans to step up monitoring during the spring tests.”

The schools’ founder is Rick Ogston, a University of Phoenix graduate with close ties to the corporate education reform movement. He reportedly identified Indiana as a market for his schools after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett visited Carpe Diem in Arizona and invited him to bring the model here.

A done deal?

The Journal Gazette’s efforts to find parents interested in the Carpe Diem model were unsuccessful, but Larry Rottmeyer, executive director of Ambassador’s education campus, The Summit, said in an email that “after much research and several visits with Carpe Diem students and staff, Ambassador Enterprises believes that this is an innovative and effective method of learning.”

“The tactics used at Carpe Diem are much different than those used in a traditional classroom, and these tactics have proven to be successful for students,” Rottmeyer wrote.

Carpe Diem Meridian opened in Indianapolis last fall. No state test results are yet available.

According to the Fort Wayne application, Ambassador would be paid “associated property operating expenses” plus $1,000 per student for 1 to 250 students, with no additional charge for students up to 300. The $1,000 per-student rate resumes for enrollment of 301 to 550 students, with cost per-student past 600 “to be negotiated to mutually agreed upon terms by Carpe Diem Indiana and The Summit.” If the school draws the targeted enrollment of 600 students, Ambassador would annually collect rent of $550,000-plus in tax dollars. The proposal from the Fort Wayne company includes no educational services, simply rent and “fund-raising and public relations support.”

Rottmeyer said students may come from “the neighborhood, across town or a different county.”

Carpe Diem Indiana board President Jason Bearce said in an email that “representatives from the Fort Wayne area reached out to us this fall to learn more about Carpe Diem’s blended learning approach and ultimately expressed interest in bringing the model to that region. …”

Bearce is Indiana’s assistant commissioner for higher education under Teresa Lubbers, author of the state’s charter school law. Robert Enlow, head of the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, also is a member of the Carpe Diem board.

“Though it’s still relatively early on in this process, it’s important to note that we do intend to add a Fort Wayne representative to the Carpe Diem Indiana board once a final decision on the school expansion has been reached to ensure that the voice of that community is represented in all subsequent board discussions and decisions,” Bearce wrote.

Aside from local participation outside its prospective business partner, the proposed school also is lacking any evidence of instruction that nurtures the critical thinking skills most employers say they need, not to mention most other elements of a well-rounded school curriculum. It’s an attractive real estate deal for the for-profit Ambassador Enterprises; a poor deal for Fort Wayne students and Indiana taxpayers.