Betting on Indianapolis “innovation” schools, The Mind Trust names three new fellows

One of the most influential education organizations in the city is betting that Indianapolis Public Schools will continue handing struggling schools to outside managers despite a recent slowdown.

The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it had selected three new fellows who will have two years to prepare to lead their own “innovation” schools. The fellows will spend their time training and planning to lead schools while the district decides whether to turn over additional campuses to outside operators and whether to partner with new charter organizations.

“We definitely feel confident in the fact that the board is going to continue focusing on growing high-quality innovation network schools,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust.

The fellows include Matthew Rooney, a native of Indianapolis who currently leads a charter school in New York City, and Eddie Rangel, an Indianapolis educator who most recently led an elementary school in the Tindley charter network. Together, they plan to open an elementary school based on the practices at high-performing schools around the country.

Geoffrey Fenelus, a charter school principal who moved with his family from New York City this month, is the third fellow.

The new fellows were chosen from over 50 applications, Brown said. These fellowships are valued at about $200,000 per year and include an annual salary and benefits, as well as support such as training and legal assistance. The vast majority of innovation schools were founded with backing from The Mind Trust, a local nonprofit that also supports charter schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools fast-growing innovation network included 20 schools last year and served 25 percent of the district’s students. But the program has been controversial, and at a time when the district was in flux last year, the administration chose not to restart any struggling schools with outside charter partners. The only new innovation school this fall will be the KIPP high school, an expansion of a network the district is already working with.

If the fellows do not end up taking over existing schools, they could open new charter schools either in the innovation network or independent of the district.

Innovation schools are premised in part on the idea that innovative models can turn around struggling schools. But many of the schools The Mind Trust has supported have relatively conventional educational models.

That’s because the fellowship is built around helping strong leaders realize their visions, said Brown, noting, “In terms of models, we are relatively agnostic because we start with a leader.”

Fenelus said that he is still developing the approach for his school, but he already determined students will take art classes and physical education every day.

“Especially in a high-stakes culture, where people push for academics and push for rigorous curriculum — sometimes athletics and arts get sidelined,” he said. “We are trying to approach a structure where it’s more holistic.”

The two-year fellowship offers a long runway for planning a school, and Fenelus said it will be especially useful because he is new to the city. “It takes time to build relationships,” he said. “We owe it to people to build that familiarity with them.”

The Mind Trust will also continue to work with two fellows who were selected last year: Alicia Hervey, who was previously the dean of student development for Christel House Academies, and Kim Neal, who was the managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC.

District leaders have said the decision to create only one innovation school next year was not indicative of a change in direction. But last November, two candidates who are skeptical of innovation schools unseated incumbent board members who had supported the model. And the district was until recently led for six months on an interim basis by Aleesia Johnson, who was selected to fill the position permanently last month.

“I am excited for these diverse, well-prepared leaders to join the IPS team as we work toward giving every student an equitable education,” Johnson said in a statement Wednesday.

Two other school leaders were also awarded a fellowship to launch an independent charter school. Jenn Watts and Nikki Henson, of Indianapolis, plan to create a science, technology-, math-, and engineering-focused K-8 school for girls that will also partner with the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana.