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Career Academy charter network opens high school in downtown South Bend

The former Temple Beth-El has been transformed into a new learning hub over the past nine months with the Career Academy charter school network staking a claim on the northwest side of downtown South Bend.

On Friday, Career Academy leaders invited local officials to the new Portage Schools of Leaders to open the charter network’s second high school in South Bend.

According to Career Academy Superintendent Jeremy Lugbill, the new Portage school will have a grounding in STEM and traditional academics, but will also test out new educational ideas. For instance, when classes started in the new building this month, there were no bells to signal when class periods ended.

“On Day One, students figured it out. They got to classes on time. And that brings with it a sense of agency, a sense of responsibility for learning. There's probably not a lot of high schools out there right now that don’t have bells,” said Lubgill.

The new space features almost as many labs as traditional classrooms with high tech engravers, lathes and 3D printers featuring prominently thanks to an over $4 million state technology grant. But humanities won’t go to the wayside as Lugbill said the school hopes to partner with the nearby Morris Civic Center on arts programming.

Lugbill said there are currently about 25 students enrolled at Portage in 9th and 10th grades. The charter had hoped to finish the building by the start of the school year, but students ended up attending classes at Ivy Tech in the fall before coming to the new building.

But the charter school won’t be the only tenant in the building. Taking up space on the ground floor is the Boys and Girls Club of St. Joseph County, who will use the space as a center for teenagers. TVs with video games occupy the center of the main lobby and there are connected rooms for making podcasts and videos.

Boys and Girls Club CEO Jacqueline Kronk said she’s excited to share space with the Portage school so Boys and Girls club kids can make use of the fancy industrial tools. But, she added that kids from any school district can be a part of the nonprofit’s programming.

The teen center is the second partnership between the nonprofit and the Career Academy. The charter network recently opened an elementary school at the Boys and Girls Club’s OC Carmichael Center at Sample and Fellows Streets, one of many recent moves the Boys and Girls Club has made since the pandemic to expand its programming.

“Honestly I think the pandemic in a lot of ways was the best thing to ever happen to us, in that we were able to regain trust with the families that we served” Kronk said. “And that allowed us to think boldly and broadly and reimagine the impact we can have in our community.”

The opening of the Portage School also comes as the charter network is making a move to acquire Clay High School, which will close at the end of this school year.

Career Academy has officially expressed interest to state education officials that they want to buy the Clay building for $1 as part of a controversial Indiana law. Though Portage school only has a handful of students enrolled, Lugbill said acquiring Clay would be beneficial for the charter as the network's other high school and middle on the northwest side of the city are overcrowded.

“Every year we’re having to shut down enrollment due to facility capacity issues,” Lubgill said. “If Clay, if that happens, being able to have nice gyms, a swimming pool, the grounds space would be really beneficial for our students.”

Clay High School’s capacity is around 1,500 students, and Lugbill said the charter will have to expand enrollment aggressively if it were to acquire the school.

In his remarks during the ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, South Bend Mayor James Mueller urged supports of both charters and traditional public school to drop their apprehensions and celebrate

“Even if you’re the staunchest advocate for traditional public schools, you can still be excited about this happening in your city,” Mueller said.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.