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Former Indy charter school administrator wins $48K settlement in discrimination lawsuit

Ignite Achievement Academy resolved complaint
A former employee of Indianapolis charter school Ignite Achievement Academy has won a $48,500 settlement after filing a lawsuit accusing the school of discrimination.
Posted at 6:30 AM, Jun 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-09 07:11:00-04

INDIANAPOLIS — A former employee of Indianapolis charter school Ignite Achievement Academy has won a $48,500 settlement after filing a lawsuit accusing the school of discrimination.

Kelly Hershey filed the complaint in federal court on March 10, 2021, alleging race discrimination, first amendment retaliation and violation of her due process rights.

Ignite Achievement Academy is a public charter school located at 1002 W 25th Street and has an enrollment of 350 students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

According to the state’s website, the school has a federal rating of “does not meet expectations” and a state grade of “C.”

Ignite Achievement Academy hired Hershey in 2019 as Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and she was tasked with developing and improving the school’s curriculum.

The complaint states:

“Almost immediately after she was hired and began work, the all-black administrative staff made it known to Hershey that she was not welcome because she is white. She was told that she was not fit to guide the black teaching staff or teach black students because she is white and didn’t understand how to teach minority students.”

Hershey was suspended for seven days for allegedly making racist remarks toward a teacher she was advising, the lawsuit alleged.

Even though Hershey was cleared of making racist remarks, she was forced to attend “racial sensitivity” training, according to the lawsuit.

Hershey was part of the school’s administration team and her duties included supervising teaching staff, according to the complaint.

Hershey’s lawsuit alleged she was forced to move offices away from her curriculum and instruction team, and a pan-African flag was draped on Hershey’s desk to signal she was not welcome at Ignite because she is white, allegations the school denied in its answer to the court.

Hershey said Ignite Achievement Academy fired her after she used MyCase, Indiana’s public court portal, after learning a teacher’s absence might be related to a criminal matter.

“IAA did not fire Hershey for ‘illegally digging into private information’; IAA fired her because she is white,” the complaint said.

The school denied the allegations in its answer to the court.

Many of the white teachers had been intimidated into resigning or left and were replaced by black staff, an allegation made in the lawsuit, but denied by the school in its response to the court.

The lawsuit claims Ignite Achievement Academy violated its own school charter which prohibits IAA from discriminating on the basis of race, which the school denied in its response to the court.

In its response to the court, Ignite Achievement Academy denied discrimination against Hershey based on her race.

Hershey and Ignite Achievement Academy reached a resolution and the court dismissed the case on March 31, 2022.

WRTV Investigates filed a records request the same day for the settlement agreement and Ignite Achievement Academy’s attorney provided it to WRTV on June 1.

Ignite Achievement Academy must pay Hershey and her attorney Tae Sture $48,500, according to the settlement.

Hershey’s attorney Tae Sture would only say the matter has been resolved and declined to comment further.

Ignite Achievement Academy has denied any liability to Hershey for the matters alleged, read the settlement agreement.

When reached by phone the school’s attorney, Alexandra Curlin, referred WRTV to the public information including the lawsuit and answer.

“We are looking forward to moving forward,” Curlin said.

Ignite Achievement Academy has faced criticism before.

On December 16, 2021, the IPS Board of School Commissioners voted to not renew Ignite Achievement Academy’s Innovation Agreement for the 2022-23 school year.

The Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation (OEI), the authorizer of Ignite’s charter, will continue its regular academic, finance and governance meetings with Ignite leadership to help ensure minimal disruptions for students, according to the IPS website.

The IPS administration is developing a plan for how the school will operate beginning with the 2022–23 school year.

According to the IPS website, the reasons for non-renewal include:

  • Four years into its turnaround status, Ignite remains below the IPS average and the average for similar schools for ISTEP/ILEARN proficiency in both math and ELA. Note: There was no testing in 2020.
  • In ELA, Ignite scores dropped considerably (25% in 2018, 6% in 2019, and 4% in 2021) placing the school in the bottom 20% of the IPS family of schools for both 2019 and 2021. More specifically, the school was third from the bottom in 2019 and fourth from the bottom in 2021.
  • In math proficiency, Ignite dropped from 10% proficiency in 2018 to 4% in 2019 and 4% in 2021
  • In both subject areas, Ignite’s proficiency was 8% in 2018, dropped to 2% in 2019 and recovered to 5% in 2021. Nevertheless, the school has remained in the bottom 20% for both subject areas every year since 2018.
  • While Ignite did see gains in IREAD (11%), the school only had a 56.4% pass rate with 24 of its 55 third graders not passing IREAD. This percentage is only 1.7% higher than the year prior to Ignite’s restart in school year 2016-17.
  • Enrollment has declined over the years, reaching a low of 354 students (from approximately 500) at ADM this year. These changes in enrollment do not correspond to the changes in neighboring populations.
  • Ignite has a high suspension rate, placing it in the Top 10 in the district among K-12 schools.
  • Staff retention for the 2021–22 school year is 46% — nearly 20 percentage points lower than any of the IPS direct-run schools.
  • District data shows Ignite has the lowest staff retention of any of the schools in the IPS portfolio of schools.

Other factors for non-renewal, according to IPS, include findings during a joint site visit at Ignite in Fall 2021:

  • Lack of application of school-adopted curricula, especially in language arts.
  • Limited parent stakeholder engagement.
  • Need for stronger adult-to-student culture and productive interactions, particularly within the classrooms.
  • Concerns with special education and English Learner instruction compliance and efficacy.
  • Overall, the school’s outcomes have remained flat or declined and inputs have not improved over the course of several years.

Shy-Quon Ely II, head of school, provided the following statement to WRTV on the future of Ignite Achievement Academy.

"We are committed to fostering an environment of student achievement, teacher empowerment, and parental involvement for the coming school year. Our new collaboration will bring stability and an unparalleled focus on academics and social progress. We are excited to work with our staff and families to realize our goals as a school and a community.”

The Mayor's Office of Education Innovation is working with Ignite Achievement Academy to prepare for the next school year.

Ignite will be operating next year as an independent charter school, according to Patrick McAlister, Director of the Office of Education Innovation, which oversees the academics, finances, and operations of mayor-sponsored public charter schools that educate about 18,000 students across the city.

“Like with all the schools in our portfolio, we will continue to meet regularly with leaders from Ignite to check in about academic, financial and governance performance,” said McAlister in a statement to WRTV. “Broadly, it’s safe to say members of our team are formally meeting with schools at least every other month, though usually we are communicating between those points more frequently on an as-needed basis.”

You can contact WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney at kara.kenney@wrtv.com or text 317-432-9704.

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