The basics of Indianapolis Public Schools: A new beginning

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)
The recent history of Indianapolis Public Schools is paradoxically a story of experimentation and of persistent complaints about resistance to change.

A key example is the 2013 departure of former Superintendent Eugene White. White was a polarizing figure hailed by some as a visionary but a target of complaints from others for not making enough progress.

That conflicted legacy continues today, with the district standing again at a crossroads. A change-oriented board and superintendent are aiming to find new ways to improve student outcomes. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, like his predecessor, has generated excitement about the possibilities for the future. And yet some observers wonder if he will be able to make change fast enough.

Here’s a look back at the history and where we are today:

District choice

White’s decision in 2005 to move from highly regarded, and more affluent, Washington Township schools to IPS, for decades the state’s poorest district, was initially seen as a major step toward change. Some hoped the success he had in the more suburban township would translate to IPS. White set about shaking things up.

Among his early accomplishments was a new focus on magnet schools. The district created a series of specialty schools, such as high schools for students interested in medicine and law. At the elementary level, the district founded Sidener Academy for gifted students in 2008, which soon became the state’s top-scoring school on state tests.

Another innovation expanded under White was the Centers for Inquiry curriculum. The program began in a single classroom before being taken school wide at School 2 and School 84, which became top-performing schools. Under White, CFI was added to School 27.

Most magnet schools have academic requirements. Students must maintain good grades and behavior or be expelled to neighborhood schools.

By 2012, about a third of IPS schools had a magnet theme, including several that earned good grades from the state based on test scores. But most of the remaining traditional neighborhood schools persisted among the worst rated in the state.

The continued poor performance of traditional neighborhood schools led to increasing frustration among White’s critics. In December 2011, the school reform organization The Mind Trust issued a report on the district that called for a massive overhaul. It proposed the mayor appoint a majority of the school board, a dramatic reduction in central office spending, increased autonomy for principals and beefed up recruiting for high-quality teachers and principals.

White rejected the report as unrealistic and called for support for his own reform plan.

Political change

Major changes began for Indianapolis Public Schools with a November 2012 school board election. Two of White’s strongest allies on the board retired and one was defeated. The board majority that had strongly supported him now turned to a majority of board members who promised to do things differently during the campaign.

In the first week of January, the new board struck a deal to buy out the remainder of White’s contract.

In July, the board selected a permanent replacement for White in Lewis Ferebee, a 39-year-old chief of staff for the school district in Durham, N.C. Ferebee started work in September, promising to spend his first 100 days listening and learning about the district. Ferebee’s son attends the district, making him the first parent superintendent in decades at IPS.

Ferebee earned a reputation from his prior work as an expert in turning around low-performing schools, first as a principal and then as a central office administrator. His approach was to target the other end of the spectrum of student performance from White, who was dogged by complaints that his magnet program mostly benefited well-behaved, academically-oriented and often wealthier students rather than the district’s most needy kids.

After just three months on the job, Ferebee announced a blockbuster: IPS, he said his own study of the district’s budget showed a large deficit White had touted did not exist. Two audits confirmed his numbers, relieving a short term worry that IPS would need to take dramatic action like closing schools to stay solvent. But declining state funding means the district’s financial fate is still not secure.

Helping the budget somewhat is a small enrollment growth trend. After falling behind Fort Wayne in 2012 to become the state’s second largest district, IPS saw more students enroll in each of the next two years. Enrollment in 2014 was 30,813, up from a low of 28,193 in 2012, and besting Fort Wayne (30,783) by fewer than 100 students.

In his first year, Ferebee surprised some traditional IPS supporters by embracing ideas that IPS critics often proposed, such as autonomy for schools. For example, White joined Mayor Greg Ballard and Republican legislators to advocate for a bill that gives IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school. Under the bill IPS also could forge deals its own teachers. One such example Ferebee has cited is Project Restore, a successful school turnaround program begun by two IPS teachers.

Ferebee has also sought to aggressively overhaul the lowest scoring IPS schools, which he dubbed “priority schools,” with new principals, new curriculum and extra support from the central office. He has advocated for changes in pay for teachers and principals.

Another big election

In 2014, the school board moved even more strongly in the direction of change. Three board members — Annie Roof, Michael Brown and Samantha Adair-White — were defeated by candidates promising to push even harder for school autonomy, partnerships with charter schools and other innovations.In 2015, the new board members immediately promised big changes would come. It quickly overturned some decisions made by the 2014 board, including moving to partner with a charter school to jointly operate an IPS school for the first time.

The new board has pushed more partnerships with charter schools, such as Phalen Leadership Academy and Charter Schools USA, to try to improve schools with low test scores despite some criticism. It raised teacher pay for the first time in five years and pledged to give principals more autonomy to make decisions about hiring and budgets.

-Updated December 2015