Ferebee pitches an IPS ‘transformation’ plan for troubled schools

George Washington and Northwest high schools and four elementary feeder schools could be grouped together in a wider turnaround effort that Indianapolis Public Schools is proposing as a way to avoid state takeover when schools get failing grades in the future.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, told the Indiana State Board of Education a “transformation zone,” modeled after a strategy used by Evansville’s city school district, could work better and maybe even save money in the long run. The state board is expected to vote on his plan in February.

“Takeover, to me, implies something that happens one time and is not sustainable,” Ferebee said. “Transformation, to me, is long-lasting … that you not only make progress for a year or two, but that you are able to sustain it over time.”

The transformation zone idea was introduced at the board’s December meeting. Ferbee wants to group troubled schools needing interventions such as state takeover and “lead partners,” a strategy that is more mild than takeover in which the state board has hired outside groups to advise school leaders.

IPS had four schools taken over by the state in 2012: Manual, Howe and Arlington high schools and Donnan Middle School. But IPS regained control of Arlington in December, the first district to get back a school taken over by the state. Two other schools that were assigned lead partners by the state, John Marshall and Broad Ripple high schools, are being advised this year by Marzano Research Laboratories, a Colorado-based group.

For the transformation zone, IPS is working with Mass Insight, the same Massachusetts-based company that worked in Evansville. They’ll work to recruit teachers and help them develop skills, rethink lesson-planning and figure out how to make sure these changes are working. The plan also emphasizes changes to school culture and discipline, which has a big effect on how kids and community members perceive a school, IPS leaders said.

“If you have great people in the building and great instructional plans, it also must feel right for the kids,” Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand said. “Then you have to monitor these things to make sure they are effective.”

A special focus will be on middle school design and curriculum — an area many have said needs big changes so students are prepared for high school.

“There’s been struggling across the district in the middle grades,” Ferebee said. “That’s part of some of our challenges with the schools that were under the lead partner process.”

In the proposal, the zone would be phased into the district in four parts. First, the plan will be finalized by July based on state board and district input. Then in the 2015-16 school year, Northwest, Washington, School 48, School 55, School 49 and School 63 will take part. After an evaluation of how it works, the district hopes to expand the zone to other priority schools by 2017.

Mass Insight President Chris Maher said the early goals would be increased in attendance, decreased suspensions and more positive comments from faculty and staff, much like the group saw in its work in Evansville. Test scores, he cautioned, might take a bit longer to catch up.

“Academic improvement in education is generally not an upward trend consistently,” Maher said. “It depends where the schools are.”

Ferebee said he thinks this plan is a good fit for his district, which has a history of friction while working with outside partners that it thinks want to take too much control from IPS.

“We previously had a model where we would try to take everybody and try to get everything done at one time,” Ferebee said. “And you can see we’re scaling up the work … I think that’s the smart way to do it. I think it’ll be something that’ll be beneficial to our students and our families.”