Probably like many others, Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer said he has a
number of questions about the proposed new Discovery Charter School,
foremost of which is: Why here?
Baer noted that when charter schools began in 2002 in Indiana, the intent
was to open schools in areas where traditional public schools were failing.
He cited other charter schools -- such as those in Gary and East Chicago --
that offer families an alternative to their struggling schools.
“This would seem to be a contrast to that,” he said, noting the Duneland
Schools’ reputation as a top performing school system. “It seems to be
contrary to the original intent.”
Lauire Metz, one of the organizers of the Discovery Charter School, said
many people have a misperception about charter schools -- that they’re
either for the underprivileged or the elite. At least in Discovery’s case,
neither is accurate.
“We’re trying to be different,” Metz said of the proposed school, which
would begin in 2010 as a K-6 school, then expand over the next two years to
include seventh and eighth grades.
Metz said many charter schools in this part of the country tend to be in
urban areas. But in the more Western states, charter schools are more
common, often built around certain themes, such as the arts or sciences.
The Discovery Charter School intends to focus on environmental education and
“placed-based” learning, using the outdoors as a classroom as much as
possible, forging partnerships with environmental groups and agencies, and
melding the Dunes and the local ecosystem into the curriculum. As summed up
in its brochure: “Learn green. Live green.”
Like other charter schools, Discovery would receive taxpayer support, would
not charge tuition and would have an open enrollment, with any Indiana
student eligible to attend, including those with special needs and those
from outside Duneland. If the enrollment applications exceed the school’s
limits, a lottery would be held to determine who attends.
“We don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the public schools,” Metz said.
Instead, she said the intent is to give families an educational choice with
a different approach toward learning. “It’s really for people looking for
something different,” she said.
The final decision over the charter school appears to rest entirely with
Ball State University, which would be Discovery’s official sponsor. Ball
State’s charter school website says it decides whether to sponsor charter
schools based in part on public feedback received. A public meeting is set
for May 28 at the Library Service Center.
Baer said the Duneland Schools will be represented at that meeting in order
to learn more about the proposal and the impact on the school corporation.
“It’s hard to tell what the impact would be,” he said.
Charter schools in Indiana are considered public schools and they receive
state tuition support per pupil. Up until this year, those funds came from
both the state and local property taxes. But beginning in 2009, the state
has assumed all general fund school expenses, funded in part through state
Discovery’s proposed budget projects that it will receive $788,670 in state
tuition support for its 276 students in the 2010-11 school year, then $1.86
million in the following school year when it grows to 316 students. Those
funds would otherwise stay in the home school district for each student
Unlike the traditional public schools, charter schools don’t levy property
taxes for other funds, such as transportation or capital projects. Metz said
the end result is that charter schools operate on less funding.
Discovery’s budget proposal identifies a total annual income of nearly $1.8
million the first year and $2 million the second year. The bulk of that
money in the first year would come from the taxpayer support and from a
$750,000 loan from the Charter School Development Corp., a not-for-profit
organization that helps with start-up costs for charter schools.
Other sources of funding identified in the first year are grants ($165,000),
state grants ($45,000), fundraising ($9,660), investment earnings ($2,466),
and non-tuition student fees ($20,700).
Baer said he’s not sure how, financially, Discovery Charter School would
impact Duneland. If most of the charter students come from outside of the
Duneland Schools, the impact should be minimal, he said, since Duneland
wouldn’t see a drop in its state support. But if a significant number of the
new students are currently enrolled in Duneland, the school system could see
an overall drop in enrollment, and thus, its operating funds.
“It could affect programming,” Baer said.
Metz said the Discovery Charter School has a fairly long e-mail list of
supporters and prospective families, and that some of the interest is from
border communities, such as Beverly Shores. However, she also said that most
of the interest is from within Duneland.
Why would Duneland families be interested in switching schools? Metz said
one recurring concern she has heard about the Duneland Schools deals with
the transition between elementary, intermediate and middle school. By
providing a K-8 setting in a smaller and one comprehensive setting, the
transition from grade to grade would be smoother and not as broken up as in
Duneland, she said. “It’s more of a community feeling,” she said.
Ball State University would be the Discovery Charter School’s sponsor; while
it would not run the school, it would oversee the school’s performance. Ball
State would receive an administrative fee, projected at $23,660 in its first
year and $55,803 in the second year.
Ball State is one of four entities in Indiana authorized to sponsor charter
schools. The others are the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office and the school
corporations in Evansville-Vanderburgh and Lafayette.
Currently, Ball State sponsors 29 of the state’s 49 charter schools.
Discovery Charter School would contract with American Quality Schools, a
non-profit educational management organization based in Chicago, to run the
school. All employees of the school would be AQS employees. The proposed
budget projects a payment to AQS of $47,320 the first year and $111,607 the
The school would not have a teacher’s union, although a provision in the
agreement between Discovery and AQS would allow teachers to organize if they
wanted. Metz said the American Quality Schools have a phenomenal teacher
professional development program, which helps ensure that teachers are doing
as they should.
Charter school teachers must be Indiana certified, students must take ISTEPs,
school data is posted on the Department of Education webpage, and the
schools are ranked under the state’s P.L. 221.
However, charter schools are exempt from Indiana Department of Education
rules and polices that apply to the traditional public schools, with some
exceptions, such as rules that deal with teacher licensing and health and
The Discovery Charter School would be governed by the board for the
Discovery Charter School, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation. Those board
members are identified in the school’s proposal as: Metz, a co-founder of
the Field Station Cooperative; Patrick Mayers, Dean of Faculty and
Instruction and senior faculty teacher at DeVry University/Keller Graduate
School of Management; Gretchen Voskuhl of Chesterton, the outdoor program
manager for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana; Denise
Samocki of Chesterton, a former assistant controller for a Chicago law firm;
and Linda Simon of Gary, an attorney in the area of employee benefits and
taxation for a Chicago law firm.
A school board that would oversee the charter school would also be formed.
This board is proposed to be made up of the following: A member from the
Dunes Learning Center, a member from the Duneland Chamber of Commerce, a
parent of an enrolled child, a member from the Indiana Dunes National
Lakeshore, and three members from the Duneland Charter School Inc.
All of those -- with the exception of the parent representative -- would be
appointed by the Duneland Charter School Inc. The parent rep would be
appointed by a separate parent advisory committee.
“Both the corporation board and the school board will develop policies and
make decisions about the school,” reads the proposal. “The school board, as
a subsidiary of the foundation, operates on behalf of the foundation;
however, final authority will rest with the foundation board for all school
decisions as the holder of the charter from BSU.”
The school board would have to hold public meetings and abide by the Indiana
Open Records Law; however, the board for the corporation that oversees it
Discovery would not provide bus transportation, so families would have to
get their students to and from the school themselves.
Metz said she has heard a concern that charter school could result in Gary
students coming here for school. Noting that any Indiana student is eligible
to enroll in a charter school, she said if a Gary student’s family can get
them to and from each day, they would be just as eligible as anyone else in
As for lunch, the proposal states that the Discovery Charter School is
optimistic about being able to provide a purchased lunch option and that the
lunch program would emphasize healthful organic whole foods, grown and
produced locally when possible. Children who bring in sack lunches would be
urged to bring reusable containers, cloth napkins and non-disposable
silverware. The school also intends to create a school garden for lunch
As in Duneland and other public schools, the Discovery school intends to
administer ISTEP each spring, the NWEA assessments in grades 3-8, and the
DIBELS assessments (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) in
The location of the school has not yet been identified, but Discovery’s
proposal says it would ideally be located near a variety of natural areas or
adjacent to or within walking distance to a national or state park. “Having
wooded and open areas will allow for exploration, active play, composting,
gardening and many other learning activities that will tie into the
place-based curriculum,” the proposal says.
It has not been determined if the building will be purchased or leased. The
proposal states that Discovery is currently working with a local developer
and a LEED accredited professional with Charter Schools Development
Corporation. Several sites are under consideration. If Ball State approves
the charter school in June, Discovery expects to have a final decision by
August as to the location of the new school.