IPS leaders ask for community input in tackling racial equity

Indianapolis Public Schools put racial inequity front and center during a series of town hall meetings this month about the future of the district.

This focus on addressing disparities is emblematic of the district’s shift in tone under the leadership of Aleesia Johnson, its new superintendent.

Billed as opportunities for the community to learn about the district’s priorities and weigh-in ahead of a long-term strategic plan, six meetings have been planned across the city. At a meeting Monday at Arsenal Technical High School, which drew about 50 people, the largest chunk of time was devoted to discussing how racism has shaped Indianapolis Public Schools and what the district should do to address racial disparities in outcomes. The meeting also delved into a wide range of priorities, including improving teaching and community engagement.

“We will never consent to our students being defined as anything less than the brilliant, resilient young people they are,” Johnson said at the meeting, reprising a line from her ‘State of the District’ speech last month. “It will take all of us working together to make good on our commitment to them that when they leave us after the K-12 experience, they are ready for the world that lies beyond.”

The meetings offer an opportunity for the community to weigh in at a time when high-stakes decisions are not imminent. Other recent opportunities for community input have come ahead of consequential decisions, such as high school closures and the selection of a new superintendent.

Bernita McGraw, a math teacher at URBAN ACT Academy at School 14, said that she was glad to see the focus on racial equity.

“The biggest issue that we’re dealing with in our district and across the state of Indiana is actually getting the resources to the people that need them,” McGraw said.

School Board President Michael O’Connor, who hosted the meeting Monday, said that during listening sessions ahead of the superintendent selection, participants asked for more chances to be part of the decision-making process, and the town halls are an opportunity to begin an ongoing conversation.

If the school district can “articulate a vision” for improving racial equity, O’Connor said, “We can help lead this discussion within the city — within the greater community.”

Johnson’s administration has made a push over the past year to reach out to residents, most notably by creating a central office team dedicated to family and community engagement. Former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who left in January to lead the Washington, D.C. school system, faced persistent criticism that his administration’s outreach was pro forma and officials were not genuinely engaging the public and listening to input.

Tara Elder, whose son is a first-grader at School 57, said that this was the first time she has gone to a district-hosted forum, and she was pleased with the discussions with other participants.

“This felt very authentic to me,” Elder said. “Now, what they do with the information that they receive is the other thing. No one knows what’s going to happen beyond here. But the fact that this was the forum that was decided upon tells me that they hope for this to help them in forming their future decisions and really engaging the public.”

The two remaining town halls are planned for next week:

School board member Taria Slack will host a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Northwest Middle School, 5525 W. 34th St.

School board members Susan Collins and Elizabeth Gore will host a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at Lew Wallace School 107, 3307 Ashway Drive.