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Oaks in the city

A multiracial classical school in Indianapolis is promoting a culture of high expectations

Kindergarten students at The Oaks Fall Creek campus. Paul D’Andrea

Oaks in the city
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Northeast Region winner: The Oaks Academy

INDIANAPOLIS—When The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis opened in 1998, its home was a former public school building in a crime-ridden neighborhood called Dodge City that was full of vacant lots and abandoned houses.

The school’s founders wanted to help families in need by going deeper than after-school tutoring and summer camp. Putting Oaks in a tough neighborhood helped fulfill that vision, and the founders wanted a tough curriculum. Soon 53 students, almost evenly divided between black and white, were memorizing the preamble to the Constitution, diagramming sentences, and working on Latin conjugations.

Students, prompted to be all they could be, responded with hard work.

Outside the school, change also came. The Oaks helped attract adventurous middle-class families who rescued broken-down houses and built some new ones on the vacant lots.

Over the years crime decreased, the neighborhood improved, and the school grew to 665 students—half are low income, one-fourth middle income, and one-fourth higher income. Racially, of every five students, two are African-American, two are white, and one is biracial, Asian, or Hispanic.

The school curriculum incorporates a biblical worldview but does not shout it. “We are Christ-centered,” says administrator Bruce Crawford: “Christ modeled for us how to love one another in community and in fellowship. It’s not just in chapel, but all day long. We’re trying to live out our faith and not just adopt the Christian label.”

For example, The Oaks highlights Bible verses in a subtle way. When the building was a public school, school officials had relegated small stained glass windows, displaying John 8:31-32, to the basement of a nearby house. Neighbors found the windows, which are now in the school’s entrance doors.

School families appreciate the classical model because students get a challenging curriculum without the bells and whistles of the latest grand experimental educational schemes. They develop discipline through memorization. They learn to follow stories as second-grade teachers read aloud The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They read classic texts: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Many schools, according to The Oaks CEO Andrew Hart, grow “cynicism among teachers and parents about a flavor-of-the-month approach in public education.” He compares that with the “timeless and predictable” classical model, featuring “a robust, thoughtful curriculum that will not be changed every two years.”

Students at The Oaks wear uniforms: khaki pants, white shirt, and tie for the guys; tartan jumper and white blouse for the girls. Parents don’t have to worry about the wardrobe, and students aren’t making fashion statements or showing off family wealth. Amid economic and racial diversity, parent Lori Chandler appreciates the literal uniformity: “Everyone wears a uniform. It puts everybody on a level playing field.”

She and her husband Mike live in a fast-growing suburb, Fishers, with strong public schools that their children attended in early grades. “We desired a school where our children got to know teachers and students who are not like them,” she said, explaining their willingness to make the one-hour commute each way, every day, for their daughter and son.

Other suburban white families also come to The Oaks out of a desire for their children to have a broader perspective of the world than they might receive in their local schools. The school does not celebrate Black History Month but weaves in African-American history throughout the year, such as in literature (To Kill a Mockingbird) or in history (the autobiography of Frederick Douglass).

African-American families appreciate the high expectations for all students in The Oaks culture. Jonathan and Devonia Harris, who have four black sons, saw from public school experience a subtle attitude of lowered expectations for their children. It wasn’t so much racial prejudice as an unconscious assumption by teachers that young black males would cause trouble and not do well in the classroom.

The Oaks offers a protected environment in that sense—protection from stereotypes about African-American males in what will be a challenging culture to live in anyway, for black or white males. Devonia Harris now teaches a pre-K class at The Oaks and wants her children to be “in a classroom without cultural expectations about their ability to learn.” She recognizes that educational problems go beyond race: “We are in a place where we are failing boys in general.”

Michael and Frances Dailey, a mixed-race couple, wanted a school close to their family mix, but they also saw that “diversity” at The Oaks is not an end in itself. “They don’t see it as just a big social project,” says Michael about school staff members: “They have a purpose in mind for the diversity. Minority kids don’t experience low expectations.” Frances added, regarding their sons, “We want them to be aware of racial identity, but not be wholly defined that way.”

Providentially, The Oaks started in Indiana just when the city and state were moving from a limited set of public and private options to a dizzying array of choices: public (with cross-district enrollment choice), private (with vouchers for low-income families), and charters (some online). Indiana’s state voucher program is one of the largest in the nation.

The Oaks has benefited from the new options. More than half the students use vouchers—yet the school was committed to economic diversity long before vouchers came. A good donor base allows for a $2 million scholarship program that gives 85 percent of the students some kind of scholarship assistance.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for The Oaks now is its success and the temptation to drift away from the school’s original goal of helping those in need. One way of responding to that challenge: Open new schools on sites in other low-income areas. The school tackled a long waiting list a few years ago by opening up a second site, The Oaks Brookside, in another low-income neighborhood on the city’s east side. “We’re a catalyst for renewal,” says Brookside school head Kelly Altman.

The old Brookside public school building filled up quickly, prompting the opening of a third site, another old public school, for what is now the middle school. The Oaks likes taking over public school buildings no longer in use in central Indianapolis, which has declining school enrollment. The brick buildings, at least 80 years old, can be high-maintenance but offer solid structures, spacious classrooms, and high ceilings.

A good idea can be ruined when entrepreneurs try to grow it too fast. Oaks leaders have tried to avoid that danger in several ways. They have used focus groups and outside research consultants to count the cost carefully when opening up new sites. They have not borrowed money for expansion but instead relied on contributors, some of whom see The Oaks as part of a larger spiritual urban renewal in Indianapolis. They also have stepped back from building a high school so far, because the higher grades require bigger and more expensive sports facilities.

Could The Oaks example work elsewhere? Some Chicago community leaders have been meeting prayerfully over that question after being impressed with what they saw in visits to The Oaks in Indianapolis. The group includes some Indy families who have moved to Chicago. They have a website (thefieldschool.org) and hope to open The Field School in 2017.

The Oaks led the state on the Indiana academic test this past year, beating out better-endowed private schools and suburban schools—but Oaks CEO Hart remembers a much bigger purpose for the school. He wants to bring a blessing to Indianapolis, in accord with Isaiah 61:3-4: “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

Money box

2015-16 revenue: $7,693,300

2015-16 expenses: $7,693,300

Net assets (as of July 2015): $4,162,063

Average teacher salary: $43,000

Staff: 78 faculty; 40 administration

Website: www.theoaksacademy.org

Read profiles of all five 2016 Hope Award finalists.

Listen to a WORLD Radio profile of this Hope Award finalist on The World and Everything in It.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.


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