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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.