New school year for James Whitcomb Riley School 43 brings new agreement with community partners

A student wearing a pink shirt sits at a table with other students in a classroom. In the background, a teacher in a blue top writes on the whiteboard.
Sixth grade math teacher Brashon Porter with students at James Whitcomb Riley School 43 on Aug. 30, 2023. School 43 ha a new principal and a new agreement with community members to help uplift the low-performing school. (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

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James Whitcomb Riley School 43 in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood of Indianapolis has lived through the same story over and over again: 

A new year with yet another principal. Test scores that need significant improvement. Community members who are desperate to help. 

But after spending the past decade floundering, School 43 could finally see change with the start of this school year.

For the school’s latest principal, Crishell Sam, returning to School 43 feels like coming home. Sam began her Indianapolis Public Schools career here in 2006 — now, some of her former students are parents at the school.  

Sam was tapped for the role in part by community members who participated in the principal selection process. 

This year, the district also signed a memorandum of understanding with a community group that has long tried to support School 43, requiring routine meetings during which both parties discuss the school’s improvement plan, staffing changes, and budget. 

Sam acknowledges that turnaround will require hard work, but she’s not fixated on the many leaders that came before her. 

“We’re talking about student achievement,” she said. “And so for me it is about: Where are we at, at this point, and what do we need to do to be able to improve?” 

Nonbinding MOU outlines regular community engagement

The MOU between the district and Midtown Indy, the local nonprofit that does community work in the midtown area of the city where School 43 is located, is legally nonbinding. 

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But it acknowledges the desire of both parties to work together to bring community resources to students. One main goal is to allow community members to “positively influence student achievement and assist IPS with the tough work of providing equitable educational opportunity,” the MOU states. 

Principal Crishell Sam talks to members of the Community Partners of James Whitcomb Riley School 43 group at a meeting at the Martin Luther King Community Center in August 2023. “The thing that I love about what happened with CP 43 is that it created a space for all of us to come together to have this common discussion,” Sam said. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Midtown Indy will collaborate with community groups, including the network of community members who have routinely met to support School 43 — known now as the Community Partners of James Whitcomb Riley School 43, or “CP 43.”

Midtown will establish an education committee — which could include CP 43 members — to work with the district and school staff on academic performance, community relations, school operations and staffing, and “overall school health,” according to the MOU. 

Community members will also provide input on the school’s budget and recommendations on school staffing and facility improvements. Midtown can also assist the district with obtaining grants to support the school. 

Although not legally enforceable, the agreement summarizes the kind of input the CP 43 group of neighborhood churches, alumni, and community organizations have wanted to have for years.

It’s a relatively big step for a neighborhood that has often felt blindsided or frustrated about consistent principal turnover and decisions about the school made from above.  

School 43 has also already enjoyed years of support from neighborhood partners, including the Butler University College of Education, whose students help staff the library, and a journalism program launched by an alumna. 

This year, a new community coordinator is welcoming those CP 43 members with open arms. 

“We want to change the environment, make it a happy, wonderful utopia. I know people think that’s impossible, but we have a very positive staff, very positive principal,” Monica DeLaPaz, the school’s community coordinator, told members at a CP 43 meeting at the Martin Luther King Community Center in August. “We want you to always feel welcome to come into the building and work together.”

New principal wants data to dictate community resources

As Sam walked through the halls nearly one month into the school year, she stressed order among students as they transition to class. 

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Everyone walks in a straight line, on the right side of the hallway — and Sam makes sure students are moving in an organized way between classes. 

First graders prepare to go to lunch at James Whitcomb Riley school 43 on Aug. 30, 2023.  (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

“I want to provide as much consistency as I can for students,” she said. “And I also want to create a space of trust.”

Still, Sam has a daunting task ahead of her as she works to turn the school around. Scores from state tests remained largely flat from 2022 to 2023, with just 2.3% of students proficient in the ILEARN administered in grades 3-8 and 35% of third graders passing the IREAD test

“It’s work that has to be done for students, because our students deserve the best,” she said. “I don’t have any plans of not being here. And if I’m here, I’m doing my work.”

And when the school transforms from a K-8 school to a Pre-K-5 visual and performing arts school next year — part of the district’s Rebuilding Stronger reorganization — even more work will need to be done. 

Sam started almost completely fresh this year, hiring about 90% of the staff — some of whom she brought over from Arsenal Tech High School during her time as interim principal there. 

As of the end of August, the school had four staff vacancies in first, fourth, and sixth grades, and an open position for English language learner students. 

Sam hopes to organize the community support from CP 43 and the midtown area based on where it’s most needed, analyzing student data to make sure community partners are doing meaningful work. 

“We have great things that they are affording us,” she said. “Now we have to make sure that we channel them as far as helping us.” 

Community members, at least, seem ready and willing to help. And some can already tell that this school year will be different. 

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“We’ve been sitting in this committee talking about 43 for years now, and I want to publicly say, it really has changed,” Sheila Long, a teacher at the school and member of CP 43, said at the group’s meeting in August. “I can’t believe — I walk the hallways and I can hear a mouse run across. It’s calm, it’s orderly, it’s quiet leaning. There’s a lot of engagement, learning, and a lot of support.” 

The committee broke into applause. Sam broke into tears. 

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Lawrence Township schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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