Building Better Schools

How one Indianapolis neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarten students at School 15 were stuck inside for recess because of damp and rainy weather.

Residents on the near east side of Indianapolis have worked hundreds of hours, held dozens of meetings and spent over $100,000 in the last year on an ambitious project: Planning a new future for their struggling neighborhood school.

Now, leaders are on the cusp of finding out whether their plan will be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board. If it wins support, it could be the first neighborhood-led effort to create an IPS innovation school, offering a model for other community groups across the city.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Neighbors who have a stake in the success of School 15 would have control, said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, which is one of the community groups behind the plan.

“That really creates a different kind of context when you are making decisions in terms of staffing, in terms of the structure of the school,” he said. “There is a direct accountability that we all hold.”

Their vision for the school includes new staff, a longer year and more support for struggling families. But at its core, the planners are looking to create a traditional, thriving neighborhood school, where families can walk and parents play an essential role.

School 15 has lots of challenges. Last year, 32 percent of students were learning English and 87 percent were poor enough to get subsidized meals. Many families at the school have unstable housing, so students leave and new kids enroll throughout the year. The school has struggled academically for years, and it received an F from the state in 2016.

Community leaders are betting, however, that they can turn the school around by improving academics, making life more stable for current families and drawing in neighborhood parents who are choosing other schools.

If the proposal to convert School 15 to an innovation school is approved, it would be led by Principal Ross Pippin, a long-time teacher who took the helm last spring. But it would be overseen by a new nonprofit that would make decisions on everything from spending to the calendar and curriculum. The nonprofit would also employ most of the teachers, who would not be part of the district union.

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Ross Pippin took over leadership at School 15 last spring. He joined the school as a teacher in 2008.

Innovation schools have most of the independence of charter schools but they are still considered part of the district. Since the Indiana legislature created innovation schools three years ago, the district has converted a handful of schools to innovation status. But most of those are managed by outside charter operators. School 15 would be the first innovation school planned by local leaders — notably from the Boner Center and Englewood Christian Church, which is active in community development.

One reason Taylor and others embraced the idea of creating their own innovation school was precisely to avoid a school “restart” led by an outside manager. School 15 has grappled with low test scores for several years — even landing on a federal warning list over a decade ago — and as IPS moves to radically overhaul failing schools, its future is uncertain, Taylor said.

“A lot of the most strongly pro (traditional) public school advocates that we have in our neighborhood are the ones that are driving this planning on the innovation school because they knew change was coming,” Taylor said. “Either we lead and help guide and help shape what that change is going to look like or it’s going to happen to us.”

Their plan for improving the long-struggling school includes extending the school day, creating new blocks of time for teachers to collaborate and adding a second educator to many classrooms. There will also be on-site staff from the Boner Center — the community center already provides services to many families in the area — who will help parents with challenges like finding jobs or getting stable housing.

Shiwanda Brown, a member of the nonprofit board, said that she hopes a neighborhood innovation school will attract staff who are more committed and that there is less teacher and principal turnover. Brown sent two daughters to School 15, her youngest finished last year, and she said keeping staff has been on ongoing challenge.

“(We want to) make sure the teachers that come on board are … there because they want to be there — they are there because they love to do what they are doing,” Brown said.

Creating a community-led school is a steep challenge. Over the past year, the group has spent hundreds of hours and about $100,000 in grant funding on forming a nonprofit, applying for federal funding and reaching out to families, Taylor said. But the near eastside neighborhood around School 15 is unusually well prepared for this kind of work, and several leaders involved with the effort were already working together on plans to revitalize the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A mural brings a spark of color to an empty lot across the street from Englewood Christian Church. The church runs a community development corporation that has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood around School 15.

It’s also a diverse community, with many stable, middle-class families that could help School 15 thrive. But as it stands, those parents often aren’t choosing their neighborhood school, instead opting for magnet or charter schools. The hope is that as an innovation school, it will be able to attract some of those families.

Taylor said that School 15 will be a “much healthier” school regardless of whether it is able to attract those families. But the aim is to create a school that is so successful that all kinds of families want to enroll.

“Our belief is that if we do our work well and if we do it right, those issues will take care of themselves,” he said.

The proposal for School 15 is already attracting interest from local parents — and sparking conversation.

Principal Pippin, who become involved when leaders were first fleshing out the idea of a neighborhood-run school, said that parents who don’t currently have kids at the school have been contacting them to learn about the proposal and stopping by for tours.

“For some reason, they didn’t think Thomas Gregg (School 15) was an option, but they see innovation as suddenly, now the school becomes an option for their family,” Pippin said. “The neighborhood’s excitement about the potential has really been not just surprising but exciting to me.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarteners serve paper breakfast at School 15.

April Adams, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood and worships at Englewood Christian Church, said that fellow congregants have started to ask for advice on whether to choose School 15. Although they are interested, they are also afraid that there might be better options for their children.

But Adams, who is pregnant, said that she and her husband are already planning on sending their children to School 15. She also hopes to work at the school eventually.

“It can’t just be one type of family that’s going to School 15,” Adams said. “If we are going to make this a community school, then the community needs to be invested.”

Building Better Schools

A neighborhood-led school to make its pitch to the Indianapolis Public Schools board

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Staff and community leaders at School 15 have a vision: A neighborhood-led elementary school that will offer families social services and draw in kids from across the diverse surrounding community.

They’ve concluded that the best way to make that happen is to have the school managed by a new nonprofit, not the local district.

This week, they will present their proposal to the Indianapolis Public Schools board for the first time since planning began more than a year ago. We covered the school last month in a story about how the neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the plan is a unique grassroots effort.

“It’s a great example of the way that we’ve envisioned this model of not being in the situation were one size fits all,” he said. “They understand that it takes more than just the people at the schoolhouse to improve student outcomes.”

If the board approves the plan, the school would join a growing group of “innovation schools” that are still part of IPS but have the freedom of charter schools. Their staff members are also not employed by the district. The board is not expected to vote on the proposal until a later meeting.

Principal Ross Pippin, who would continue as school leader, told Chalkbeat last month that he’s interested in having the flexibility to make decisions on everything from spending to curriculum.“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

How I Teach

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.