IPS picks six schools to try out more freedom for principals (updated)

Leaders in Indianapolis Public Schools for months have been promising a transformation that will reduce central office control and give building principals more freedom to manage their schools.

Next year, that plan will be put to a test.

The district last week picked six schools as pilot “autonomy schools.” The schools will be the first to try out a new district program that gives principals and other school level leaders more control to make their own decisions about curriculum, teacher training, how to use instructional time and more. In the long-term, the district aims to convert all schools into autonomy schools or into a different sort of self-managing category called “innovation schools.”

“This is about student achievement at the end of the day,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district innovation officer. “If we back off … and tell our leaders, ‘you know your school the best, you know your community the best,’ …  we believe student achievement will improve.”

Eight schools applied to be part of the autonomy pilot, Johnson said. Two were not selected.

All four Center for Inquiry magnet schools will become part of the pilot autonomy schools group, including School 2, School 27, School 84 and School 70, which will convert to a CFI in the fall. The schools have long waiting lists and they are often touted as among the most successful schools in the district. But they also serve students that are significantly wealthier than the district average and fewer black and Hispanic students, who make up a strong majority of the district.

The pilot group also includes School 99, where teachers founded the turnaround program Project Restore seven years ago. It raised the school’s accountability grade from an F to an A, and it’s been implemented in two other schools. At School 99, 84 percent of students are black and over 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

School 99 will no longer be affiliated with Project Restore next year, according to Nicole Fama, an original Project Restore teacher and the principal of School 93. The program founders are now at School 93, where they are working on a plan to convert the school to innovation status, which offers even greater freedom than autonomy schools. The other two Project Restore schools, School 99 and School 88, are leaving the network because the school leaders did not wish to pursue innovation status, Fama said.

The only pilot that is exclusively a secondary school is Harshman Middle School, a magnet that focuses on science, technology, engineering, math and world languages. The four CFI schools go from elementary school to eighth grade, however, so many middle school students will be part of the pilot. Harshman is currently the only middle school in IPS, but district leaders are looking to move adolescents out of combined middle and high schools, and more middle schools may be on the horizon.

Most of the discussion so far about these new categories have schools has focused on innovation schools. For innovation schools, the district partners with outside organizations to manage schools under a contract.

In contrast, autonomy schools are directly overseen by IPS. Teachers and staff are considered IPS employees, and they are part of district unions. In innovation schools, teachers are employed by the outside contractor.

Schools were selected based on several factors, Johnson said, including whether school leaders have the capacity to take on more responsibility, how schools plan to use autonomy and the level of interest from the school community.

IPS School Board President Mary Ann Sullivan said she was glad to see strong interest in autonomy from building principals and school communities.

“I’m excited about them moving forward with it,” she said.

Nearly all of the schools selected to participate are magnet schools and none are high schools. That’s because the schools that expressed interest in joining the pilot group were primarily magnet and elementary schools, Johnson said.

“Our focus as of now is all about schools that demonstrate desire and demonstrate capacity,” she said. “It’s about learning for both the district and the schools.”

The pilot schools also will have more control over the funding they receive from the district. Once they receive funds, principals will decide how to spend that money based on building priorities. That’s part of a shift toward a funding model called “student-based” or “weighted” budgeting, which the district plans to implement in 2017-2018. Weighted budgeting assigns money to schools based on the number of kids each school serves, with extra funding for high-needs students.

(Read more: Rich school, poor school: IPS push to even out funding could bring big changes.)

The pilot schools will work closely with district level administrators and staff from Education Resource Strategies, a non-profit consultancy advising the district on weighted budgeting and autonomous schools.

The pilot phase is designed to help district and school leaders work out any kinks in the plan for shifting decisions to school leaders before expanding the program district-wide.

“We’re starting with a pilot,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told IPS School Board at meeting Jan. 26, “but we have our eyes on building capacity to ensure that we are able to offer the same level of development for other schools in the future that would have interest in elevating to greater autonomy.”

NOTE: This story has been updated to add information about two schools that are leaving the Project Restore network.