After years of rapid growth, only one new innovation school will open in Indianapolis next year

A nationally watched and controversial strategy that has transformed Indianapolis Public Schools appears to be slowing down.

The state’s largest district has added an average of five schools each year since 2015 to its network of independent innovation schools. But next fall, just one new school will join the innovation network.

This doesn’t necessarily mean innovation schools, which are managed by outside organizations such as charter schools, have fallen out of favor among district leaders. But some observers question whether Indianapolis Public Schools’ current state of uncertainty may explain why it is being less aggressive.

Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by an interim superintendent who once spearheaded the innovation strategy but is now seeking to lead the district permanently. Additionally, there are three new school board members, including two who are skeptical of innovation.

“It’s not surprising that when you have an interim superintendent and a new school board, that there is a window of time where the speed of change might not be as fast,” said Brandon Brown, who leads The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools. “But my sense is over the long-term we will continue to move forward at a clip similar to what we’ve seen in the past.”

While Brown said he expected to see more opposition on the board to innovation schools after November’s election, all innovation school contracts that have come before the panel have passed.

But the board could face more contentious decisions next year. Of the eight schools and charter networks that sent Indianapolis Public Schools letters of interest, only one new school was presented to the board for a vote. The board approved an agreement with a high school run by the KIPP charter network, which runs two existing innovation schools. At least one of the proposed schools is expected to come before the board next year.

Innovation schools began four years ago as a strategy that aims to improve failing schools and boost enrollment at a time when the district was shrinking. The schools now enroll about 25 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students. Innovation schools are managed by outside organizations, largely charter networks, and their teachers are not covered by the district contract or union. But Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit for their enrollment, test scores, and other academic data.

Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who developed innovation partnerships in her previous role, said the slow down in the number of innovation schools approved for next year does not signal a shift in direction. Instead, it is the result of the administration doing the same due diligence it does every year to ensure that agreements are a fit for the district.

“I don’t think there’s anything to read in the tea leaves around whether we are still committed to the strategy or not,” Johnson said. “It really is organically how it played out this year, and I’m totally OK with that.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor, who said the process for selecting innovation partners remains the same, and the district is making decisions in the best interest of students.

“We want a process that is rigorous,” he said. “I believe this administration will continue to bring to us schools that are ready.”

The school board went through a dramatic shift in November, when Susan Collins and Taria Slack, who were vocally skeptical of innovation schools, ousted incumbent board members who had largely supported innovation schools to win seats.

Although the school board does not break down evenly between innovation supporters and critics — and members flip back and forth for votes on individual schools — supporters of innovation schools still hold a rough majority. The election results, however, could make it more difficult for potentially divisive innovation schools to win board approval.

Even critics of innovation schools do not think the slowdown is the beginning of a long-term shift in policy. Charity Scott, who leads the IPS Community Coalition, which is critical of innovation schools, said she sees it as a public relations strategy. Leaders are avoiding controversial decisions while the district is led by Johnson, who has also applied to lead Indianapolis Public Schools permanently, she said.

“It’s definitely slowing down to reframe after losing two school board seats, as well as trying to get the interim superintendent to become the long-term superintendent,” Scott said.

In part, the slow down is because the Indianapolis Public Schools administration did not recommend handing any struggling schools over to outside innovation operators. But it’s also because interest in partnerships between the district and independent charter schools fizzled.

Aleicha Ostler, a former Indianapolis Public Schools principal who is founding a charter school, was initially interested in joining the innovation network, which allows participating schools to buy services such as food and transportation from the district. But ultimately, her board concluded that in the first year, the school would be better off working with contractors, she said.

The school, Invent Learning Hub, will launch as an independent charter school, she said.

“It’s definitely a door that we will keep open,” Ostler said. “When we become a larger school, the benefit might be there.”

In the case of Purdue Polytechnic High School, which is planning to open a second campus on the north side of the district next school year, it was the district that decided not to go forward with an innovation agreement, said Scott Bess, who leads the network.

The first Purdue campus has been an innovation school since it opened last school year. But over the last several months, the charter network and Indianapolis Public Schools have been in a political showdown over the future of the former Broad Ripple High School building. Bess is interested in opening the second Purdue school at the site, while Indianapolis Public Schools aims to sell the lucrative asset to a developer.

Last week, an administration official called to say that the district would not be going forward with an innovation partnership with the second campus because there was not enough support on the board, Bess said. “I think good superintendents, which they have, never want to take something to the board that they are not sure if they are going to approve,” he added.

Johnson said the agreement had not gone forward with Purdue because there is still uncertainty around where the school would be located long term and what enrollment would look like. As with the other schools, the district could partner with them in the future, she added.

“It doesn’t mean never,” Johnson said. “It means we didn’t decide to move forward in this particular season.”