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KEVIN LEININGER: Demise of Indiana Virtual School helped create ‘hybrid’ educational option in Fort Wayne

Options Schools COO Michelle Walden, left, and Growing Minds founder Beth Hodges have teamed up to create a "hybrid" educational program on Fairfield Avenue. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

What do you get when you combine on-line education, a brick-and-mortar charter school and a not-for-profit tutoring and mentoring business?

The answer is in the former Early Childhood Alliance building at 3320 Fairfield, where the partnership between Noblesville-based Options Schools and Growing Minds of Fort Wayne also offers a lesson in how to turn a problem into an opportunity.

“We had been working with Indiana Virtual School, but when it closed we made contact with Options,” said Beth Hodges, who worked for a publishing company and the Fort Wayne Community Schools before founding Growing Minds in 2010. The new hybrid known as “Options @ Growing Minds” will educate students on line and in person while offering tutoring, life-skills coaching, mentoring and other “wrap around” services through Growing Minds, which occupied the building in May.

In addition to distance learning, the goal is to have 40 students in grades 9-12 on site by this spring, with middle-school grades added later. While all students are welcome, Hodges said the program is geared toward students who are struggling in a traditional school setting.

But, of course, Indiana Virtual School didn’t merely “close.” In June, following allegations that it had enrolled (and handsomely profited from) thousands of inactive students, the school negotiated a deal to cease operations by the end of this month. Indiana Virtual Academy and its now-closed sister operation, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, also were criticized for poor academic performance, graduating just 2 percent of seniors.

Options, on the other hand, claims it is “competitive in all grades and subjects and consistently outperforms the norms in many areas . . . (and) both Options brick and mortar campus (in Carmel and Noblesville) perform well above the averages of the nine Indiana alternative schools and the hundreds of alternative schools nationwide.”

“We’re not here to be a competition (to other schools). We’re a complement. Traditional schools can’t serve the entire spectrum. We serve students with no traditional (connections) to school,” Options COO Michelle Walden said. “We’re not opening a new charter school (with all the regulations that would entail). This is an extension of what we were already doing.”

“This program is exactly what the children of Fort Wayne need, as it provides a true alternative education program that is free and available to the public,” Hodges said. Options @ Growing Minds students will report to the Fairfield campus for at least three hours of face-to-face instruction per day.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are not bound by many of the regulations governing public schools. Growing minds, meanwhile, also gets much of its funding from the state. The fact that charters and traditional public schools are funded by the Legislature can be a source of tension between the two.

But Options Schools does have support within the public school community.

“We are very supportive of the Noblesville Options Charter School expanding their program to include middle school,” Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer said in a statement. “This is a need that area school districts were struggling with . . . We have a common philosophy that we are all here to serve students well and we recognize the strengths that each us of brings to the partnership.”

Added Bret Bailey of the Hamilton Heights schools: “Students learn in different ways and in different settings. (We have) been thrilled to partner with the newly formed Options Middle School because they provide a unique service and educational model that helps some of our most at-risk students who are struggling to succeed in our educational setting.”

It sounds like the perfect partnership, and Hodges and Walden are both full of the optimism that comes with any new venture. But, in truth, the performance of some charter schools in Fort Wayne and across the state have left something to be desired despite the rosy rhetoric. What’s more, Hodges and Walden have embarked on a challenging mission just as the resumption of classes may complicate efforts to recruit new students.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic about their chance for success and wish them and their students the best. Because, as Hodges said, “You can’t take a student out of a traditional setting and expect them to improve by doing the same things.”

For more information, visit OptionsSchools.org/enroll-now to secure a seat. Applicants should mention ‘Options @ Growing Minds’ within their online submission.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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