As D.C. leaders vet Ferebee, his track record in Indy falls under a harsh spotlight

Former Indianapolis Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was grilled about the performance of students in Indianapolis Public Schools during a confirmation hearing Tuesday to lead the Washington, D.C., school system.

During a nearly 10-hour hearing that grew heated at times, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson interrogated Ferebee about why student passing rates on Indiana’s state test declined during a three-year period in Ferebee’s tenure — and the gap between black students and their white peers grew wider.

The exchange was the tensest part of the hearing, one of three being held in Washington to garner public input about Ferebee as he awaits confirmation to lead the district. Ferebee, who left Indianapolis in January, was also questioned about a sex abuse scandal in Indiana and his former district’s partnerships with charter schools. The D.C. City Council has until April 9 to confirm or reject Ferebee or he will automatically be confirmed.

One statistic council members zeroed in on is that just 14 percent of black students passed both the math and English state assessments in Indianapolis last year.

“One of the biggest problems we have [in D.C.] are the achievement gaps we have in our academic performance,” said Council member David Grosso, who chairs the education committee. “My concern here is that it appears that the gap got wider in Indianapolis.”

Ferebee largely dismissed the results of the test, saying that it was an inconsistent measure of what students were learning because the exam was modified repeatedly while he led the district. (Despite changes in the test, Indiana officials consider the results comparable between 2015 and 2018.)

He said that instead of relying on state test scores to measure schools, Indianapolis Public Schools focused on other measures such as SAT scores, dual enrollment courses where students earn college credit, and AP course enrollment.

“I did not feel comfortable nor did the school board of Indianapolis Public Schools feel comfortable having a sole focus on a state test that was very volatile from year-to-year,” he said, adding later, “We didn’t have a consistent state test or curriculum.”

That wasn’t an explanation that satisfied Mendelson.

“Your answer is sort of like saying, even though tests are a way of measuring progress, when the test results don’t look so good, we are going to look at other measures,” he said. “That leaves me skeptical.”

While Ferebee cited rising graduation rates as one of his accomplishments, Mendelson also dug into those figures. He focused on why the percentage of students who graduated without passing state tests rose and why the graduation rate in district-managed schools declined last year.

“One way to measure how good you’ll be here is how good you were there, and that growth wasn’t so great, and there are questions about that growth,” Mendelson said. “Tell me why that’s not a concern?”

Ferebee said that he was not concerned about state test waivers that those students used to graduate, which he described as a “very rigorous process.” Even though students who earn waivers are not passing state tests, he said, they are showing proficiency in other ways. To receive waivers, students must meet a host of requirements, such as maintaining certain attendance and grade requirements.

“With great confidence I can share with you that every student who graduates has a post-secondary plan that’s verified to ensure that the student is prepared for college and career,” Ferebee said.

The back-and-forth came after hours of testimony from members of the public that also included criticism of Ferebee’s work in Indianapolis as well as support from residents he has met as he toured the district.

The scrutiny from the public and council members focused on issues that defined Ferebee’s tenure in Indianapolis Public Schools, including a three-year-old abuse scandal that rocked the city after district staff failed to properly report a sexual relationship between a counselor and student.

Denise Krepp, a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission who spoke during the public comment, said that the DC school district is struggling with its own sex abuse problems and Ferebee’s handling of the case in Indianapolis should be disqualifying.

“I’m troubled by Mr. Ferebee’s candidacy, and I’m troubled because of what I know about what happened in Indianapolis,” she said.

But it was not only the problems in Indianapolis that drew negative attention. There was also criticism of his signature achievement: The development of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but run by charter or nonprofit managers.

Signe Nelson, an English as a second language teacher who is on the Washington Teachers Union executive board, spoke in opposition to Ferebee’s appointment because he turned Indianapolis schools over to private operators. Years of charter school expansion in D.C. have not improved education for most students, she said.

“My real concern here is privatization of public education,” she said. “It looks to me like the plan is to continue to privatize at the expense of public education by setting the foxes to guard the hen house.”

Ferebee portrayed innovation schools, which helped him gain acclaim among charter school advocates, as a model that was designed to meet the specific needs in Indianapolis.

“What may have worked in the school systems I have previously worked in, may not be the best solution here,” Ferebee told the council, echoing a statement he made when his nomination was announced in December.

Although his work in Indianapolis was scrutinized throughout the hearing, council members had many less tense interactions about subjects ranging from preschool to school technology. Several members of the public also spoke in favor of Ferebee’s appointment, highlighting how much he has listened to community members in recent weeks.

Darrell Gaston, a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said that he supports Ferebee’s selection.

“His public commitment to neighborhoods are strong. His verbal commitment to me on parental engagement is to be commended,” Gaston said. “My only hope is that if he is confirmed as the next chancellor, that he keeps the same energy, passion, excitement, engagement, and dedication to the community.”