The Project School, a public charter school, will be expanding to space on Washington Street, near the school on South Walnut Street, to allow for more students to be able to attend the school.
For the 2020-21 school year, the goal is for one classroom to be ready, meaning about 26 more students will be able to be enrolled for the year, said Cathy Diersing, the school’s leader. Older students will likely be the ones to utilize the second space, but plans are still in the works.
By the time all three classrooms in the new space are open in 2022, around 85 more students will be enrolled in the school, Diersing said. TPS enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“The opportunity that we now have to be able to expand with some controlled growth so that we can ensure fidelity to our model is just incredibly exciting,” Diersing said.
The Project School signed a 10-year lease for 416-420 S. Washington St., which is owned by Tom White. The space will be renovated, with the budget for the first round of renovations being $150,000, Diersing said. The school is working with Springpoint Architects to develop the master plan.
Diersing said the space will match philosophically with the work done at TPS, so it will include open spaces and flexible seating. The first round of renovation will affect some of the building, but only the front half of the space will have a finished renovation for the 2020-21 school year. In a year, the second section of renovation will begin.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of joy in our community with this announcement,” Diersing said.
During the 2018-19 school year, 278 students were enrolled at the school and 298 were on the waiting list. Diersing said the waiting list being higher than the number of enrolled students has been a trend for many years.
“There hasn’t been a year recently that it has reduced below 250,” Diersing said.
The waiting list doesn’t carry over from year to year, and when charter schools have more applications for students than open seats, they use a random selection process, or lottery system, to decide on enrollment. This must be done at a public meeting.
For The Project School, admission preferences are given in certain cases, such as to children of TPS staff and board members or children with a sibling at TPS.
Diersing said being able to enroll more students has been in the works for years.
“I believe that 2017 was the first time that we made a very large announcement there and then followed it up with in print information that was sent out to families we’ve included in our Facebook page a number of times,” Diersing said.
TPS is chartered by the Ball State University Office of Charter Schools and received a seven-year renewal last year, making it the first Ball State charter school to get this long of a renewal, Diersing said. The goal of expanding was also included in renewal documents, which are public.
“We are submitting an amendment to the Ball State Office of Charter Schools for the additional students and the trajectory over time,” Diersing said. “The amendment will be submitted by mid-February at the very latest.”
Diersing said TPS isn’t applying for a new charter, they’re amending their charter, so public meetings aren’t required.
The current space TPS is using is owned by the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department. The initial term was a 10-year lease, which started in 2009. There are four five-year extensions available for the lease, Diersing said. There are four years left of this first five-year extension, then there will be another five-year term.
“So they’re fairly well aligned, which is important, because if there would come a point where we would decide to move to one campus in 10 years, having the two buildings closely aligned in terms of lease terms is important,” Diersing said.
TPS will remain a K-8 school and won’t be adding on additional grades. Diersing said there were community meetings about this a couple of years ago, but the consensus was that wasn’t the greatest need in this community.
“We have a number of outstanding options,” Diersing said. “Project-based curriculum at the Academy of Science and Entrepreneurship has some alignment with the work that we do. We feel like that is taken care of. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t look at the possibility of an opportunity that might support a small number of high schoolers if we felt that that need existed.”
If a change in the grade level configuration was desired, that would require submitting another amendment to Ball State.
One goal with the addition of students is to make sure families living in poverty know about the additional spaces available, Diersing said. With more students also comes hiring more teachers. Diersing said she’s aware of the majority white staff at TPS, and having a more diverse staff that can reflect and best serve the students is important to the school.
“I worry all the time about the experience of teachers and the state of education and the fact that we’re losing so many teachers,” Diersing said. “I think that we work very hard to value teachers and to listen, and to have many opportunities for shared decision-making and collaborative experiences.”
More than a quarter, 26.3%, of TPS’s students have special education needs, which is equal to 73 students, according to the Indiana Department of Education’s Compass database.
“In our application pool, we have a fairly significant number of families who are searching for solutions to struggles that they’re experiencing,” Diersing said. “I think that there are brilliant special education services all over this county in lots of different ways. For whatever reason, there has been a recognition among many families that The Project School is a place where great inclusion services can happen and we work very hard to live up to that reputation.”
According to the fall 2019-20 Public Corporation Transfer Report, released by the Indiana Department of Education, most of the students that attend The Project School live in Monroe County. In this report, transfer refers to students who go to a school other than their local public school corporation. They aren’t students who necessarily transferred out — they may have never gone there.
The report shows that 250 students who live in the Monroe County Community School Corp. district and 18 students living in the Richland-Bean Blossom district go to The Project School. That’s most of the school’s student body.
In Indiana, funding follows the student. Both charter schools and traditional public schools receive state funding per-pupil. The addition of 80 to 90 more students total is what’s expected for TPS, Diersing said. That’s equal to about $600,000 in additional state funding for the school.
“I know that expanding the one free chartered public school that’s in Bloomington often comes with discussion from some about their questions or their their perspectives on this opportunity for families,” Diersing said. “I think for each of us, we have to really examine at what point we would search for an opportunity for our own children.”
She said sometimes it’s a philosophical search, where families find that what TPS offers matches with the experience they want for their child.
“Often, it’s a search for a family with a child who they believe is struggling significantly within the structure they’re in, and they don’t have another option,” Diersing said. “They can’t move to a different attendance area or do many of the things that would give them different choices.”
MCCSC enrolls more than 11,000 students. If a majority of the students at TPS continue to come from within this district, the additional funds to TPS would be a little less than 1% of MCCSC’s funding from the state, though students that enroll in TPS may have never gone to the MCCSC.
Diersing said when families come to a school by choice, that is valued, adding that it’s heartening to hear the excitement from parents, former and current students, and families who have been on the wait list.
“I also believe and have always believed in my 33 years working in public schools, of all kinds, traditional public schools and charter public schools, that the more we can do to empower families to make the decision about what’s best for them, the more the experience can mean,” Diersing said.
Jenny Robinson, chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County, said public schools matter for democracy.
“We’re seeing lots of funding that’s not keeping up with inflation and then the diversion of funds to charters and vouchers,” Robinson said of public schools. “This just continues that. It’s another sort of cut, it’s another sort of chip away at our public school system, which really can stay vibrant when everybody has a stake in it, when the stakes are high for everybody that we have a wonderful, fully resourced public school system.”
Robinson said public schools accepting all children in the community, including those from differing backgrounds and walks of life, is fundamental to society. There is a guaranteed voice in public schools through an elected school board, she said.
“We want people to have voice, not choice,” Robinson said. “I want our public schools to be strong because we’re in them, we’re participating.”
When people leave, they’re giving up that voice, which matters to help public school systems improve, Robinson said.
“If they have a problem, if they think that their kid or certain children are being underserved, make a stink about it, because that’s what we get to do in our public schools,” Robinson said. “We get to do that publicly and hopefully improve the situation for everybody rather than just leave.”