School at 23rd & Park plays vital role in neighborhood renewal
In the 1970s, the neighborhood now known as Fall Creek Place was informally known as “Dodge City, because of the increased number of shootings; soaring crime rates, rampant drug abuse, and a serious abandoned and deteriorating housing problem contributed to the blight. At a grassroots level, however, neighbors were working in their own ways to bring about change. Percy Scruggs, an African American boy scout leader from Alabama, opened the first Community Outreach Center in the neighborhood. Russ Pulliam once said of Scruggs, “He never talked about diversity or racial reconciliation. But he practiced it, bringing together blacks and whites in a common cause to help a neighborhood.”
In the 1990s, former governor Mitch Daniels, then an executive at Lilly, and a group of friends and fellow businessmen decided that Indianapolis needed a different kind of school that could be a redemptive force for reconciliation in the city. They picked the bleakest area of the city they could find, found space in an abandoned IPS building at the corner of 23rd and Park and opened the Oaks Academy. The Oaks was founded on the idea that all children are capable of the duty and delight of learning, and that a rich, high quality education should be available to all. The leaders envisioned and developed a rich classical curriculum, celebrating the “gold” of our great cultural heritage, integrated and organized along the historic timeline. Students study the art, politics, history, literature and philosophy of the Ancient World in second grade, Greece and Rome in third, the Middle Ages and Renaissance in fourth, on through the modern era in sixth grade. Everything repeats in middle school. The approach seems to be working. The school’s ISTEP pass rate is currently 100%, with most students testing one to two grades above grade level. At the end of every school year, all students march down 23rd and Park, costumed, and dancing to music from the era they have studied. It is an exuberant display of joyful learning and one of my favorite events of the year. If you live in the Fall Creek area, come watch this year’s parade at 7:00 p.m. tonight (May 17). It is one of those little snapshots that reminds me that there is hope in the world.
In the spirit of Percy Scruggs, the Oaks has always been intentionally committed to racial and socioeconomic reconciliation and unity. The student body is roughly 50% low income, 25% middle and 25% high, and 39% African American, 45% Caucasian, and 16% Biracial, Asian and Hispanic. At the Oaks Academy, faculty and staff are deeply committed to caring for each individual student. Head of school Andrew Hart says, “No matter who you are, no matter what neighborhood you come from, no matter where the decimal point is in your bank account, what we say to every parent who comes in here is that there is one thing you need to be sure of: Your child will be known, and your child will be loved.” And it is true.
The days of “Dodge City” are a memory. Fall Creek Place, the neighborhood that surrounds the Oaks Academy, is now one of the most beautiful and desired neighborhoods in our city. In the early 2000s, the city developed an aggressive home ownership program to address the problem of abandoned housing and absentee landlords. Under the leadership of the King Park Area Development Corporation, development and sales have far exceeded projections. Today, more than 400 new families join many long-time residents in calling the neighborhood home. Fall Creek Place has won four national awards for excellence in planning, design and community development, and has been featured in eight national magazines. Thanks to our Indianapolis Community Development Corporations, city leaders and neighbors like you who see needs and do something about them. Our city becomes more beautiful every day as we all work together.