For the first time in 4 years, no struggling Indianapolis Public Schools face an ‘innovation’ restart

For the first time since Indianapolis Public Schools began handing management of troubled campuses to outside operators, the district is not expected to restart any struggling schools as innovation schools next year.

The administration is instead relying on less drastic measures to improve campuses with poor test results, said interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.

The move is a departure for the district, which has handed six neighborhood schools to outside charter partners since the creation of innovation schools four years ago. It comes at a moment of transition for the district, as former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee heads to Washington, D.C., and two new members who are skeptical of innovation join the board.

Officials said the decision not to recommend restarting any schools as innovation schools this year was not, though, a response to the uncertainty in the district. Instead, the decision was based on what they believed would work best at the schools in question.

“We are focused on making the best decision for our kids,” Johnson said. “That’s going to be the case no matter board composition, no matter political context.”

Seven district schools had such low scores and improvement on state tests last year that the administration sent in teams to look more closely at their management and teaching. But all of those schools showed they were making progress based on the assessment, district officials said, so leaders decided to continue with efforts other than innovation.

“We have leadership in place at all the schools that we feel very confident about,” said Andrew Strope, performance and continuous improvement officer for the district.

The steps the administration is taking to help the schools vary depending on the context, Strope said. For example, two campuses are already in the transformation zone, an approach to turnaround where the district uses specialized coaching, teacher leadership, and, potentially, additional pay for teachers.

Additionally, three of the schools that went through quality reviews are already innovation schools. If those schools don’t improve, the board could ultimately choose not to renew the contracts with the operators — and potentially even restart them with new managers.

Although the administration is not recommending that any schools be restarted with outside managers, there could still be additions to the innovation network later this year. School leaders may apply to voluntarily convert to innovation status, and charter schools may seek to join the network.

Innovation schools have drawn attention and praise from national charter school advocates, and they may have been one reason Ferebee was nominated to lead the school system in D.C. When schools are restarted as innovation schools, they are still part of the district and serve neighborhood students. But the daily management is outsourced to charter schools, and the teachers are no longer covered by the union contract.

The approach has been controversial, and it helped fuel a growing movement against Ferebee’s administration. Two board members who have called for a slowdown in the growth of innovation schools unseated incumbents in November.

Susan Collins, one of the newly elected board members, said she’s glad the district is not moving to restart any of the schools with low test results.

“I believe that people working together can make positive change,” Collins said. “Let’s see if we can solve this problem in house.”

Here are the seven schools that went through quality review:

  • Stephen Foster School 67
  • Eleanor Skillen School 34
  • Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15
  • Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs 42
  • Kindezi Academy at Joyce Kilmer 69
  • James Russell Lowell School 51
  • Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48