Indianapolis ‘restart’ schools try to build trust and hire teachers — from a distance

When the Indianapolis Public Schools administration recommended in February that Alicia Hervey take the helm of a troubled westside campus next school year, she began reaching out, introducing herself to families, meeting them at McDonald’s, and canvassing the neighborhood.

That engagement helped Hervey gain the trust of some parents who were anxious about the overhaul of School 67, which educates about 600 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, as an innovation school with new staff under Hervey’s management. By the time the IPS board voted to officially approve a contract with Hervey on March 19, however, Indianapolis schools were closed and the state was just a few days away from issuing a stay-at-home order in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

As most Indiana schools attempt to shift to remote instruction, while ensuring their students have access to essentials such as food, Hervey is among a small group of educators facing a different task. They must lay the groundwork for overhauling three existing IPS campuses at a time when buildings are closed and socializing is severely curtailed.

“The biggest challenge is the face-to-face interactions that you want to have with families,” said Hervey, who is now relying on phone calls, video conferences, mailings, and social media to relay her plans for the PATH School, the new charter operator that will take over School 67.

Next academic year, Adelante Schools will take over Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School, and Phalen Leadership Academies, an established Indianapolis charter network, will take over School 48. All three operators were approved at a March board meeting, igniting criticism from some people who said the decision should not have been made during the crisis.

The campuses will still be considered part of IPS, which will get credit for their enrollment numbers and test scores. But the staff will be employed by the charter operators, and the teachers won’t be represented by the district union.

The coronavirus and the school closures it triggered could be roadblocks to overhauling struggling Indianapolis campuses because building trust with the community and families can be crucial to the success of turnaround efforts.

The barriers to building trust are particularly steep at Emma Donnan, which has been at the center of a bitterly fought battle for control for several months. The school, which enrolls about 400 students, is currently managed by Charter Schools USA, a network that was hired after the state took over the struggling campus in 2012.

Leaders of the charter network hoped to gain permanent management of Emma Donnan and two Indianapolis high schools, but the State Board of Education voted in January to return them to IPS oversight. The district, in turn, chose Adelante to take over Emma Donnan.

Because of that friction, Adelante has not yet hosted on-site meetings with parents. The co-founders, Eddie Rangel and Matthew Rooney, have instead been making connections through community groups, such as neighborhood associations.

“We actually had a fairly extensive plan for family engagement,” said Rooney. It included canvassing and building relationships with housing complexes where students live. Now, they are shifting their focus to phone and social media. “We want to make sure to make live phone contact with every single family prior to the start of the school year.”

One way they are hoping to smooth the transition for families is by keeping current staff, who already have strong relationships with parents and students, said Rangel. After the upheaval caused by COVID-19, fostering stability for students seems especially important.

“We know that it’s a pipe dream that 100% of teachers want to come back or are a good fit for Adelante Schools,” Rangel said. “But what we’re committed to is getting as many people as possible so that kids have a safe haven to come back to, and there’s some sort of normalcy when they get back.”

Hiring staff during a pandemic is also a challenge facing school leaders overhauling campuses. Before social distancing became the norm, Hervey held a day-long hiring event with staff, parents, board members, and other Indianapolis educators. Teachers rotated through interviews, and they were able to meet with about 10 educators in a single day, she said.

Now, the PATH has been forced to shift hiring to video conferences, and the process is much slower, she said. Adelante has also shifted hiring to online interviews, where applicants must teach model classes over video.

As communities respond to COVID-19, schools that serve low-income students and children of color “will feel this moment much more than schools that are serving higher-income kids,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools.

In the coming years, students will have higher social and emotional needs, there will likely be less funding to help meet those needs, and gaps in passing rates on state tests will widen, Brown predicted. “It will take years in my opinion to rebound,” he said.

The founders of restart schools, however, have an advantage in preparing for the challenges ahead. Because they are not struggling to educate and meet the needs of current students, they can focus on how they will adapt their approach for next academic year and educate students who have gone several months without traditional school.

They can also plan for the possibility that schools may still be closed in August — or may close again next school year if the pandemic has another wave.

“It is in students’ best interest for people to be planning for school not to look the same,” Rangel said. “If this should happen again — for anything, for any reason — what is the playbook?”