Two new charter schools in Northwest Indiana, Discovery Charter in Porter, and the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology in Hammond, have gotten off to a great start, principals say. Located in the shadow of the Indiana Dunes, Discovery Charter uses the environment as its playground, including a trail students explore as part of their schoolwork.

Principal Karen Poplawski said students already are showing success in assessments with 70 percent meeting and exceeding goals. She called charter schools a piece of the public education puzzle.

Fifth-grader Chenoa Sherman said classes at Discovery give her an opportunity to study outside, making lessons different and interesting.

Hammond Academy Principal Sean Egan said the school focuses exclusively on project-based learning. Every youngster in the school is working on a novel and will have the book finished by the end of this month.

Although Egan says he doesn’t believe in overtesting students, they will participate in ISTEP-Plus and some nationally recognized tests. He said students are at the center of everything the school does, and they lead parent-teacher conferences, providing parents with PowerPoint presentations and other materials to show what they have learned. Egan said 95 percent of the school’s students come from Hammond.

Meanwhile, two new charter schools are scheduled to open next fall in Northwest Indiana, and a local charter school is planning to expand.

Heritage Institute of Arts and Technology will be the first charter school in Merrillville, though organizers still are looking for a building. The Lakeside Charter Academy will open in East Chicago. It, too, is still searching for a building.

Heritage Charter, to be managed by Chicago-based American Quality Schools, will have a curriculum focused on visual and performing arts, with teachers using technology to deliver lesson plans. Board President Darlene Henderson and marketing director Maurice Preston hope to open with 350 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and later expand to eighth grade. They hope to model the new school after the high-performing Disney magnet school in Chicago.

Managed by Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, Lakeside Charter Academy will house kindergarten through fifth grade, eventually expanding to eighth grade. It expects to open with 375 students.

Cheryl Edwards-Cannon, director of partner relations with National Heritage Academies, said charter schools have the ability to be more flexible than public schools.

“It gives parents another choice. We don’t feel we are in competition with public schools and vice versa. It’s just a different mindset and a different curriculum than the public schools,” she said.

National Heritage Academies manages more than 60 tuition-free charter schools in six states across the country, including Aspire Charter Academy, which opened in Gary in 2008.

Charter schools are public schools funded by the state based on the same tuition support traditional schools receive. The Indiana Department of Education also grants charter schools money during the planning period. The maximum a school can receive for planning is $225,000.

While the state has not yet approved the application, 21st Century Charter School in Gary is planning to open what it calls the Gary Middle College. A public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Gary Middle College would use the same building as 21st Century Charter to offer an evening option (5 to 10 p.m.) for students.

Kevin Teasley, with the GEO Foundation, said it will allow students to earn their high school diploma and complete up to 60 college credits. He said it’s designed for mothers who may have had a baby and dropped out, or young men who fathered a child or others who became involved in drugs.

“We will definitely enroll students in college while they are in our care. It can mean that our students are as young as 14 or as old as 50, as long as they have not earned a high school diploma,” he said. “We’re excited to be able to offer students this kind of choice.”