The basics of Lewis Ferebee: An IPS superintendent pushing hard for change

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ferebee announces his stunning discovery that a $30 million deficit was phony in March of 2014.

When he was picked to be the new superintendent of Indianapolis Public School in the summer of 2013, Lewis Ferebee didn’t seem to exactly fit with what the school board said it was looking for.

He was a well-regarded former principal and administrator working as the chief of staff for the superintendent of Durham, N.C., schools who had spent his entire career in traditional public school systems in that state.

But Ferebee has quickly blossomed into the collaborative leader and innovator school board members said they were looking for. At IPS he has consummated new partnerships with charter schools, forged alliances with some of the district’s harshest critics, took control of the budget and pushed hard to reshape schools so principals are empowered to make more key decisions.

At the same time, his critics have grown louder, worried that he has backed a school reform agenda without building grassroots support for changes some fear will make the district unrecognizable and place the interests of IPS families secondary to the new belief that autonomy and innovation will improve schools.

A growing reputation in North Carolina

The board had placed a premium in 2013 on hiring a proven leader with a track record of innovation and a willingness to work with charter schools and the wider community of organizations pushing for change in the school district.

At first, Ferebee hardly seemed like a perfect choice.

Of the three finalists, he was the only one who had never worked in a charter school system. In fact, for his doctoral thesis Ferebee had studied the effect of the promotion of school choice as a school improvement strategy in the federal No Child Left Behind law and concluded it had little impact on student learning.

Plus, it was two mavericks on the board — Annie Roof and Gayle Cosby — who recruited Ferebee to apply after hearing him speak at a National School Boards Association meeting, not the board members most associated with the school reform community in the city.

Still, he was the board’s unanimous choice.

Ferebee’s personal track record of turning around troubled schools impressed the board most.

After growing up in Columbia, S.C., and graduating from North Carolina Central University, Ferebee earned a masters degree from George Washington University and doctorate from East Carolina University. His teaching career began in Virginia, but he soon moved on to Greensboro, N.C.

There he took over as principal of one of the city’s lowest-scoring elementary schools. Soon the test scores jumped. From there he asked to be named principal of the city’s lowest-scoring middle school, which his elementary school fed into. It was soon one of the best-scoring urban middle schools in the state.

Ferebee then was placed in charge of overseeing a portfolio of the district’s most troubled schools. He followed the superintendent to Durham, where he helped craft a $70 million plan to reduce spending in part by closing schools.

He pitched himself as the perfect turnaround superintendent for Indianapolis.

A stunning revelation

Ferebee’s initial plan called for big changes quickly.

Administrators had to reapply for their jobs, and several longtime district employees were not selected to continue with the district. He endorsed an Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce study of the district that called for deep cuts in central office spending, selling school buildings and renting building space to outside groups.

But the biggest bombshell came in March of 2014 when he gathered reporters and shared a discovery he had made while poring over IPS financial data during winter break: the district’s much-touted $30 million deficit was fake.

In fact, Ferebee reported, IPS has finished 2013 with a $4 million surplus.

A week later, Ferebee fired the district’s chief financial officer. He said the district for years had inflated budgets to make it appear there was less money than it actually had. Under the weight of perceived shortfalls, teachers had been laid off and other cuts put in place over several years. Ferebee said that practice would end. He promised regular financial reports and named a committee to oversee financial operations.

The discovery that IPS was not falling short suddenly relieved Ferebee of growing pressure to make dramatic changes, such as school closings and layoffs.

New partners manage IPS schools

Under Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White, the district treated charter schools as competitors.

But Ferebee set out quickly to make them partners.

Ferebee said his motivation was seeing brand-new schools built to house charter schools just blocks from IPS buildings that were short of students and costing the district money to maintain.

Why not, he thought, move some of those charter schools into IPS buildings that had empty space?

To make that possible, Ferebee began talks with two frequent critics of IPS — Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the education committee in the Indiana House.

The result was a bill that allowed IPS to partner with charter schools in new ways. The district could rent space to charter schools, but it could also allow charter school networks to manage IPS schools under special contracts.

Over the next year, Ferebee moved quickly to expand existing partnerships with Enlace and KIPP charter schools, which used former IPS school buildings, by adding new deals with other networks.

The most high-profile was a contract with Phalen Leadership Academies, a charter school network. Phalen was given total control over one of the district’s lowest-scoring elementary schools: School 103. Phalen hired its own teachers and staff and runs the school autonomously, even hiring its own contractors for custodial and groundskeeping services.

More preschool, more teacher pay

Ferebee made good on two of his biggest early promises by the end of 2015 — IPS expanded its preschool offerings and gave its teachers a raise.

The preschool expansion began under White, but Ferebee quickly embraced it, saying he hoped to offer enough preschool spots for all of the city’s four-year-olds.

That promise was helped along by Ballard, who won a long battle with City-County Council Democrats to establish a $40 million, five-year plan to offer scholarships to help poor families pay preschool tuition.

Both efforts have proved very popular, as more young children have flooded into learning programs, both at IPS and at private preschools.

In 2015, Ferebee repeatedly said he wanted to give teachers a raise, even if he had to tap reserve funds to do it. the district had gone five years without a base pay increase for teachers.

Negotiations with the teachers unions produced just that — a contract with raises for teachers at all experience levels, but especially large bumps for novice teachers and those at mid-career.

A bold future vision

By the end of 2015, Ferebee unveiled a wide-ranging strategic plan with 70 recommendations for changes in IPS, including new grade configurations for schools, surveying students and families about the services they receive and starting a process that could lead to asking voters for a tax hike to help modernize some of its school buildings.

But the centerpiece of the plan is a three-year shift away from direct central office oversight of schools to a system of autonomous schools monitored by a much smaller administrative team.

The new system will start with a pilot in 2016-17 of eight schools that volunteer for more freedoms. But eventually the plan calls for all schools to follow that approach.

It also calls for more partnerships with outsiders operating IPS schools under contract in the mold of the Phalen management plan for School 103.

A key element to make it work will be a more equitable distribution of money per student to schools. But that will be tricky, because it could reduce the money now being spent on high-scoring magnet schools to free up cash to share with schools that have more children who face barriers to learning.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.