College dreams grow in a difficult neighborhood

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In a corner of the community that in the past has been labeled as crime-ridden, bleak and broken, educators are trying hard to get some ambitious goals to take hold.

In the past few years, the Meadows neighborhood just east of Keystone Avenue, south of Fall Creek Parkway and north of 38th Street has started a remarkable transformation. Once well-known for troubled apartments and soaring crime rates, the Meadows has now become home to several charter schools.

Each school has a slightly different take on education.

For example, at Kipp Indianapolis, all students are expected to spend even their early school years working toward eventually attending and graduating from college.

Ryland Stewart, a sixth-grader, has already decided he wants to be an anesthesiologist. His teachers say he absolutely has the ability to reach that goal, but Stewart says he knows it will be a long road.

In describing his success at Kipp, he explains the challenges of his past; he tells a visitor that he had a tough time controlling his anger.

“I used to act up and get sent out of class,” he says. “But here, they help me achieve a higher standard.”

Eighth-grader Shaniya Caldwell is also aiming very high in life, though at first she was far from happy about her new school.

“I was mad, because I didn’t want to come,” she admits with a smile.

She says she had to be prodded into attending Kipp. She says her grandmother thought it would be a good idea and kept pressing the issue until Caldwell relented. Teachers now call Caldwell a star, and the eighth-grader is now very pleased that grandma was so persistent.

“So now when my mother asks me, ‘What did you learn in school?’ I tell her a lot of stuff,” Caldwell said. “And she goes ‘Wow! You really learned something, huh?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!”

Caldwell says she hopes to attend Notre Dame or the University of Connecticut.

School Leader Aleesia Johnson says she lives for those kinds of stories.

“I mean every eighth grade promotion ceremony, I cry when I speak,” she said.

She also acknowledged the difficulty of nursing such dreams toward reality.

“The reality is we are in a zip code that’s in the top 5 for homicide rate or crime. That is real and a lot of our kids come from those communities,” says Johnson. But in the same moment, she explains the hope that fuels the mission. “Impossible is nothing. When people say it’s not possible, we will absolutely prove them wrong. And we believe that about all of our kids.”

The walls of Kipp feature college logos at every turn: Classrooms are named for colleges. Pennants hang over doorways. Teachers use school mascots to identify working groups or projects.

“They understand that their demographics don’t define their destiny.”— Casey McLeod, science teacher

“They understand that their demographics don’t define their destiny,” says Casey McLeod, who teaches science to seventh and eighth grades.

She says she decided to work at Kipp specifically to fight the idea that kids from some situations cannot or should not try to go to college.

“And every day I’m blown away by what they have the capacity to achieve,” McLeod said.

The Meadows building is Kipp’s third location in 10 years in Indianapolis. Right now the school teaches middle school students. Kipp’s plan is to expand in stages.

First, Kipp will begin kindergarten classes next session. Additional grades and a high school will be added in future years. For now, Kipp students work to land spots at other local high schools with continuing Kipp support to and through college.

And there may be a bold new partnership in the works. Kipp and Indianapolis Public Schools have been in talks to team up. There’s no word yet on specifics, but such a partnership could range anywhere from shared facilities and training to educational programs that could benefit students in both systems. If it happens, it would be a first-of-its kind relationship between a charter school and Central Indiana’s largest school district.

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