IPS says it wants school board's blessing for move toward more freedom for schools

The Indianapolis School Board expects to vote next week on a “framework” for shifting the district toward a system with more freedom for principals and schools over the next three years.

The basics of the plan were shared last month, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and district leaders said Monday at a work session that they wanted the board’s blessing to continue shaping the plan. The board meets Oct. 27 to discuss its agenda and Oct. 29 to vote.

There are still several steps before the school system more fully empowers schools and shifts the central office toward a service center rather than a command center, administrators said.

“We should think of this always as an active strategy and not an end goal in itself,” said the district’s innovation chief, Aleesia Johnson.

The plan would put schools in three categories next year:

  • Traditionally managed schools. These schools will be directly overseen by the central office, as schools mostly have been in the past.
  • Autonomous schools. At these schools, principals will work in conjunction with a new governing board to manage their schools’ budget, curriculum, school day length, staffing and teacher training decisions locally.
  • Innovation network schools. These are schools that are externally managed through a partnership, such as IPS School 103. It is being managed independently by Phalen Leadership Academies, a charter school network.

Johnson said there are four ways a school can become an innovation school:

  • The district can decide to house a charter school in the building.
  • A district school can request to convert to an innovation school.
  • The district can “restart” a persistently failing school with new leadership and curriculum.
  • The district can start an entirely new school in one of its buildings, such as the new Emma Donnan Elementary School, which is sharing space in the same building as Emma Donnan Middle School.

Conversion schools must create a nonprofit governing board to help guide the principal.

If the board approves, more details will come, such as a process for schools to apply to become either an autonomous school or to join the innovation school network.

Board members asked that IPS give guidance to help schools that want to convert to innovation schools pick diverse board members with high expectations.

“How do make sure they don’t choose board members who won’t hold them accountable?” board member Gayle Cosby asked.

Johnson said the IPS board must ultimately approve any school’s plan, giving the board members a chance to ask those questions.

“There really should be a clear set of questions that has to be documented that these aren’t just good educators, they really do understand cultural diversity,” board member Sam Odle said.

The board will consider four recommendations next week, Johnson said:

  • Green-lighting the district to create a process for selecting autonomous or innovation schools.
  • Allowing IPS to collaborate with outside organizations, such as the consultant ERS, on strategic design work for the schools.
  • Giving the district leeway to identify other elements of school management it can allow autonomous schools to control.
  • Permitting administrators to create new systems of collaboration across divisions of central services.

Also coming is a plan for giving information, and getting feedback, from parents and schools. Odle and Cosby said that should be a high priority.

“How do we communicate the whole thing to parents,” Odle asked, “so they feel they are getting something versus losing something?”