Interim leader Aleesia Johnson named next superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools

Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, a longtime ally of charter schools, will officially lead Indianapolis Public Schools following her widely expected selection by the district’s school board Friday.

Johnson’s appointment to lead the state’s largest system solidifies its high-profile transformation into a district that works hand-in-hand with charter school operators. A former charter school principal, Johnson was hired four years ago to oversee the new innovation program, where outside operators run campuses that are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools. That initiative has drawn attention from around the country and helped the district of about 31,000 students establish an outsize reputation.

“I have grown to have such deep love for this district over the past four years,” said Johnson at the announcement Friday. “We have some of the hardest-working people you will ever find in Indianapolis, and I’m so excited by what I know that we can do on behalf of our students and our families.”

Johnson, 41, was tapped after a five-month input and search process that culminated in public interviews with three finalists on Tuesday. The other finalists were Larry Young, an assistant superintendent from Pike Township, and Devon Horton, who serves as chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.

As the next superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, Johnson will be asked to navigate several serious challenges on the horizon. Despite winning support from voters for a referendum to boost school funding, the district is facing a tough financial picture, and it is likely that school boundaries will be redrawn and campuses will be closed in the coming years.

The district is also in the middle of a high school reconfiguration after the administration closed three campuses and consolidated students at the four remaining schools into new academies with specialized focuses this year. And four years after Indianapolis Public Schools began partnering with outside operators to create innovation schools, the administration is grappling with how to measure whether those schools are succeeding.

Johnson — who rose from the principal of a charter school of about 350 students to the chief of a school system in four years — said the district strategy, including on innovation schools, will remain largely consistent.

“At this point, I don’t expect dramatic changes in the direction of the district,” she said. “We are going to continue to be laser-like focused on student outcomes and how we get to better student outcomes.”

Read more: Aleesia Johnson took the helm of IPS amid rising opposition. How will she respond?

The Indianapolis Public Schools board has reached a tentative agreement with Johnson after deciding which finalist to select behind closed doors. Because of state law governing the process, it will be several weeks before the board takes a final vote on Johnson’s contract, said School Board President Michael O’Connor.

The board expects to release a term sheet next week, hold a public hearing on the contract in mid-July, and vote on the contract at its regular July meeting, O’Connor said. He declined to say whether any board members supported other finalists.

The district did not announce how much Johnson will be paid. Former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made nearly $300,000 per year including perks when he left, and Johnson is currently paid $222,380.

When the board evaluated finalists, they were looking for someone who knows and understands Indianapolis and will be around for the long-term, O’Connor said. Johnson’s commitment to racial equity and ensuring all children have access to high-quality schools were also important strengths.

“She has been able to articulate a direction and a style and an area of focus that resonated with the board,” he said.

School board member Elizabeth Gore said that Johnson is a strong choice for superintendent because she is a good communicator and has successfully led the district over the last six months. Gore, who is skeptical of innovation schools, declined to say whether she supported Johnson’s selection.

As a new leader, Johnson will have to learn to work with students, the board, and the administration, Gore said.

“I’m looking for her to do well. That’s really what I want. But I do know it’s going to be a challenge,” she said. “This isn’t an easy job.”

After serving as deputy superintendent for less than a year, Johnson became the district’s temporary leader when Ferebee left in January to take the helm of the Washington, D.C., school system. She is the first African-American woman to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson has three school-age children who attend district schools and an adult stepdaughter.

Known for being personable and building strong relationships, Johnson is widely liked by Indianapolis leaders and supporters of innovation schools. In the weeks since she announced she was applying to become superintendent, several parents have spoken in support of Johnson at school board meetings. But her choice is controversial among critics of innovation schools and the other rapid changes that were made under Ferebee’s administration because she is seen as continuing his strategy.

Critics of Johnson also highlighted that she does not have a superintendent’s license, something that is not required under Indiana law. At the press conference Friday, Johnson said she has taken and passed the leadership assessment that’s required for a temporary license and she plans to begin required coursework during her tenure.

In the public interview Tuesday, Johnson spoke of her commitment to Indianapolis Public Schools, and she made a case that she would improve opportunities for students of color.

“We simply cannot be satisfied, be comfortable, or be anything less than relentlessly urgent about changing the conditions of our… school system,” Johnson said. “We have within our direct power the ability to impact the trajectory of each of our students’ lives when they leave us.”