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Careful replication of high-performers is one important method for growing high-quality schools. The Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is doing just that, with recent approvals of seven new charter schools—six of which are replications.

Mayor Greg Ballard has made education a major focal point for his administration. In a city where close to half of over 140,000 public-school students are currently
in low-performing schools, the Mayor has set a goal of significantly increasing the number of high-performing seats for students over the next 10 years. And while that goal is not tied to specific school type, says Brandon Brown, the new Director of Charter Schools for the Mayor, high-quality charters will play a significant role in meeting that objective.

Attracting talent to Indianapolis to launch networks of high-performing charter schools is one of the primary goals ofThe Mind Trust, a nonprofit education reform organization in Indianapolis. In October 2011, The Mind Trust launched its Charter School Incubator, which awards $1 million grants to teams of innovators to start or expand networks of some of the nation’s best public charter schools within Indianapolis. The organization also helps with startup support such as identifying board members, connecting schools with experts for advice, and securing facilities.

The objective for The Mind Trust isn’t growth alone, but rather charter excellence, says CEO and founder David Harris. “The focus needs be on growing high-quality schools, so we are aggressively recruiting talent to Indianapolis to develop the ‘best of the best’ charter schools.” Harris, a former NACSA board member who previously headed the charter office under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, says authorizers should be the driving force in setting high standards for schools, approving only the strongest applications and closing failing schools.

Mayor Ballard’s charter approval process reflects this commitment.  It includes a public interview of applicants, and provides multiple opportunities for community input. Charter applicants recommended by the Mayor’s Office ultimately must be approved by the City Council. Until this current round of approvals, Mayor Ballard’s office had approved 12 schools—16% of all charter applications his office received. Six of the schools approved in the current process were replications of schools currently operating in Indianapolis that achieved an A or B rating on the state’s accountability system. The seventh is a new local partnership noted by the Mayor’s Office for strong leadership and community support.

“The mayor is directly accountable to the families who attend these schools,” Harris said in a recent article, “so he is only approving schools that have the best chances of success and is also paying very close attention to the schools to make sure any problems are addressed early on.” That in turn, says Harris, attracts higher caliber talent to operate schools and serve as board members.

The Mayor’s Office is one of three large authorizers in Indianapolis who are beginning a collaboration to compare and align their accountability standards and approval processes to improve the quality of charter schools throughout the city and discourage “authorizer shopping” by weak applicants.

“In order to improve educational outcomes for students, we all should be authorizing only high-performing schools,” said Brown. “We need to work together to build an ecosystem of great schools for all families in Indianapolis.”

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