All it took for Donavan Rigdon to find a different kind of school was a simple piece of mail.

When the 18-year-old got a flyer from the Crossing’s new Decatur Township campus, a private alternative school, she figured it was at least worth a shot. She’d already been to school in Beech Grove and Decatur Township, but neither felt like the right fit.

The Crossing is a network of 28 accredited private Christian schools spread throughout Indiana that cater specifically to students who struggled at other schools, were expelled or dropped out. The campus in Decatur Township opened in July in what used to be an appliance store and pool hall.

The Crossing isn’t really like other schools — even other alternative schools.

For one thing, the schools are religious but depend heavily on public funds through partnerships with school districts. Students say they like the mix of online learning, one-on-one teaching, job training and character-building lessons, which come infused with religious teachings.

But the religious connection appears to have cost the Crossing one big potential partner: Indianapolis Public Schools.

This year, Rigdon was looking for something different, and she thought she might be able to find it at the Crossing.

“I’m going to try this,” Rigdon remembers telling herself. “I might as well get myself back into God again, and I just came here, and I love it so far. It’s probably the best school I’ve ever been to.”

The Crossing serves a narrow slice of students who have trouble fitting into traditional or alternative public schools elsewhere but eventually discover they need a high school diploma to open doors to better jobs, said Curt Merlau, a regional director who oversees some of the Crossing’s Indianapolis campuses. This year, the system will serve about 2,500 kids.

In Marion County, Wayne and Decatur townships and Beech Grove schools have contracts to send students to the Crossing. Every campus has licensed teachers, and they use curriculum developed by Seattle-based Apex, a for-profit virtual high school.

Despite the fact that other public schools in the area are comfortable working with the Crossing, IPS board member Kelly Bentley said its strong religious connection helped derail a partnership with the district.

“I’m in no way passing any kind of judgment on the organization or the work they’re trying to do, but it’s clearly a religious organization,” Bentley said. “And I don’t know how you separate that when they’re working in a public school setting.”

Crossing CEO Robert Staley said the organization’s existing track record and success graduating 635 students speaks for itself. In other public school districts, district lawyers were involved in the process and helped craft the agreements, including in IPS. He said they are legal and maintain proper separation of church and state.

“I would love for people to look at the outcome,” Staley said. “They want to grab something and go ‘this isn’t right, that’s not right.’ And I would say look, the reason 60 school corporations … are fully endorsing our model is because of the results that we’re getting in Indiana.”

Kids who need a place to learn

An early version of the Crossing was born out of a meeting tinged with desperation.

Staley, then-principal of Concord High School, brought into his office the parents of a student who was caught several times with marijuana. The boy’s parents were distraught, Staley said.

“(They) came into my office and they were crying and said ‘What are we going to do?’” Staley remembered.

“I’m involved with this little group of people outside of school, and we just talk about life,” Staley told them. “I think your kid is looking for an identity and something to hold on to.”

So, the student accompanied Staley to one of the group’s meetings, and before long he was inviting his friends, too. The kids straightened out, quit doing drugs and asked Staley to visit their friends in jail.

In the meantime, what began as more of a discussion group added a focus on learning. The kids filled a room with six computers so those who were not in school could return to learning. For a while, Staley was doing double-duty — principal during the day, tutor by night.

“I would actually expel kids during the day and call them up at night and invite them to this little school,” Staley said.

The Crossing opened its first official campus in 2003 in a warehouse, an effort built on many conversations with students Staley said had been failed by the traditional school system. They told Staley they needed a place that felt like a family.

That concept resonated with Rigdon, too. The support from her teachers and her classmates helped her feel like she fit in.

“I’m pretty much friends with everybody that’s here,” Rigdon said. “Everybody is helpful and honest, and I’m glad to be here because people don’t judge me for the person that I am or the person that I was before.”

In addition to students’ schoolwork, they are also expected to get job training, whether through an internship or a “micro-business,” a small business idea that students come up with, plan and work to carry out with help from staff members who’ve worked in that field.

Justine Gonzalez, principal at the Decatur campus, said her school is planning to hire someone versed in car detailing so students can create a small business around it. Any profits go toward the staff member’s salary. Other students, Like Rigdon, are placed in internships.

Some day, when she finishes college, she wants to work in a children’s hospital.

“I feel like working with sick children because I had a goddaughter that did have cancer,” Rigdon said. “I feel like children need to know they have a purpose here and make them feel comfortable while they are sick and bond with them and take care of them.”

Religious connection raises doubts for IPS

School districts shell out good money to send kids to campuses of the Crossing.

Under the group’s contracts, the Crossing generally gets 95 percent of the per-student state aid meant to support each student’s education. For Decatur Township, for example, that equates to about $6,300 per student.

The remaining 5 percent of state aid, or about $400 for Decatur, stays with the district in part to support the work it continues to do to monitor student attendance and achievement data. Ultimately, the student graduates from the district school with an Indiana Core 40 diploma, the default diploma the state encourages all college-seeking students to earn.

“That student stays enrolled with the public school, but we serve them day to day,” Merlau said. “We want to be, for the school corporation, the last tool in their toolbox to keep a kid in the corporation, or to even re-enroll students who drop out or who were reassigned as homebound.”

Students work in a mix of online-learning and one-on-one sessions with a teacher at the Crossing's new Decatur campus.
Students work in a mix of online-learning and one-on-one sessions with a teacher at the Crossing’s new Decatur campus.

But schools using public dollars that involve religious instruction are bound to draw some scrutiny — and the Crossing is no exception.

For IPS, a partnership might make more sense with programs that already help struggling students in the area, said Bentley, the IPS board member.

Bentley said she prefers to see IPS create such an arrangement, for example, with the Christel House DORS charter school for dropouts or the Excel Center charter schools operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives.

Her question is why even broach the potential messiness that comes from mixing religion and schooling when these schools are an option?

For example, Bentley worried that the Crossing might require employees to follow religious rules and that could be at odds with contracting rules for IPS.

But that’s not a problem the Crossing’s lawyer, Hilary Knipstein, argued in an email.

The Crossing hires “without regard to race, religion, color, gender, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, marital status, amnesty or status as a covered veteran in accordance with applicable federal, state and local laws,” she wrote.

The proposal for IPS to contract with the Crossing was considered by the school board in August by Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Ferebee said in a statement that IPS now is choosing to go in a different direction.

“IPS is always seeking new ways of reaching students, and the Crossing has a unique model that could be implemented quickly,” Ferebee said. “Instead of pursuing a partnership, we have decided to develop an IPS-specific approach to reaching students who have been disconnected from the district.”

The funding from the public school districts does not pay for the religion classes offered by the Crossing. The classes, which are taught by a community member from a local church, are not for credit and optional for students. The funding for religious instruction comes from the organization’s private fundraising, Staley said.

Parents are notified of the opportunity for the class, as well as other times religion might be referenced, and must sign a form to give their children permission. Kids can excuse themselves if they ever feel uncomfortable. So far, of about the 7,000 kids they’ve served, Merlau said fewer than 10 have done so.

“We’re certainly not going to advocate something we think is illegal,” Staley said. “We have sorted out all of our finances in our accounts so that every public school dollar that come into our organization is used for a secular education program. We’re not doing a Christian school program, we’re doing the same exact model I did for 20 years as a public school principal.”

More growth ahead?

Looking ahead, the Crossing wants to grow, both outside the state and inside Indianapolis. Merlau said he’s building more relationships with township school districts and IPS. In the meantime, he praises his students like Rigdon, who are actively working to educate themselves and turn their lives around.

Gonzalez, Rigdon’s principal at the Crossing, pushes her to keep up her attendance and stay involved, a must if she wants to keep her internship at Salvage Yard Church’s daycare. She helps take care of the kids a few days a week, most of whom are 5-years-old and younger.

“I make sure they’re fed, I make sure I read stories to them, or I teach them letters and numbers,” Rigdon said. “I love to watch them smile, too, around me, and I know that they’re comfortable with me and trust me.”

She’s starting to look at colleges, but she hasn’t made a decision yet. Maybe Arizona, she thinks — that’s where her sister goes to college, and she used to live there when she was younger. Plus, the warm weather is appealing.

But first, she’s got to finish high school. And she’s well on her way.

Just a couple months into the school year, and she’s already completed her year-long senior English class. There’s no question she’s going to college, she said.

“My goal is to finish high school this year by March, and I think I can do it,” Rigdon said. But then, she thinks better of that description. “Not I think. I can do it.”