Three $100,000 fellowship winners named

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Heather Tsavaris, Marlon Llewellyn, Lauren Franklin and Earl Phalen (left to right) were the winners of The Mind Trust's $100,000 innovation school fellowships in 2014.

A charter school developer, an intelligence analyst and an Indianapolis Public Schools principal each get $100,000 and a year off to work on ideas for improving IPS schools.

Last month, The Mind Trust and Mayor Greg Ballard’s office announced they would award three fellowships to spur creation of innovative school designs that IPS could choose from when it considers how to turn around its lowest scoring schools. More than 200 came to informational sessions and 63 applied.

Nine semi-finalists were interviewed and the winners were selected from among four finalists.

The winners were announced today. They are:

  • Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn, who will jointly work to adapt the blended learning model used in the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school.
  • Heather Tsavaris, who was inspired by her work in counter terrorism to create a middle school designed to encourage students to start their own businesses as an alternative to more troubled lifestyles.
  • Lauren Franklin, who as principal helped turn around IPS School 56 from an F to an A. Franklin wants to expand the Montessori program from School 56 so it can be used for a K to 12 school.

Here’s more on the plans each hopes to develop:

A blended learning school

Phalen is a one-time foster child and former Harvard Law School classmate of President Obama who founded an after school mentoring program in Boston. He came to Indiana in 2009 after being selected a Mind Trust “education entrepreneur fellow.”

Earl Martin Phalen
Earl Martin Phalen

From that fellowship, Phalen invented Summer Advantage, a program that aims to help low income children advance, rather than backslide, during summer break. Building on the success of that program, he launched the Phalen Learning Academy and has plans to open nine more Phalen charter schools.

But partnering with Llewellyn, he will aim to adapt the Phalen instructional program so it can be used for a traditional public school.

Marlon Llewellyn
Marlon Llewellyn

“Starting a school up and collaborating with an existing school are two different experiences and skill sets,” he said.

Llewellyn formerly worked in IPS, followed by stints at Fountain Square Academy charter school and working for Tindley Schools, the charter school group, as a dean at Arlington High School, a former IPS school it manages in state takeover.

Blended learning programs teach students through both traditional teacher-led activities and using computer software. Llewellyn in the past was a Summer Advantage principal, overseeing Phalen’s summer program.

“I’ve just seen the blended learning model at work and what Summer Advantage did was truly amazing,” he said.

A K to 12 Montessori school

School 56 is a magnet school, which generally means better performance in IPS. But Franklin’s school is unusually high poverty for a magnet: 84 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Plus, more than a third of the students receive special education services.

Lauren Franklin
Lauren Franklin

Despite those challenges, the school made a 19 point jump in its ISTEP passing rate over Franklin’s four years at the school, exceeding the state average last year at 78 percent.

Franklin has two ideas she wants to explore: keeping students together for all of their K to 12 schooling experience and expanding Montessori instruction through high school grades.

“There is a family environment there,” she said of the K to 8 student body at School 56. “Why not keep them within the same environment? This is where they feel safe and people meet their needs.”

Although there are few examples of Montessori high schools, Franklin believes the philosophy can be adapted to go beyond middle school grades.

“if we really talk about what’s best for students and how they acquire knowledge, then you are looking at a new way of thinking and teaching,” she said.

Franklin, who attended IPS as a student and has many friends and relatives who go to IPS schools, said she was inspired by the opportunity she saw in the fellowship to improve district schools. Much of her approach, she said, is about building a culture where educators give their all to help kids achieve.

“This is deeply personal for me,” she said. “It’s based on my observations of what kids really need.”

An entrepreneurial middle school

Tsavaris’ story is easily the most unusual of the three winners.

Heather Tsavaris
Heather Tsavaris

She is not an educator. She has no indiana connections. And the Ohio native worked for a decade as an intelligence officer for the U.S. government.

In that role, she worked on counter terrorism, including a stint in the Netherlands. There she worked to understand how terrorist groups try to appeal to minority Turkish and Morrocan communities.

Oftentimes, it was about offering young people a way out of lives that felt like they were leading nowhere.

“They felt a lack of empowerment,” she said. “Terrorist groups had a message of empowerment: ‘You can make a difference, you can be important and you can do something.’ It changed something for these kids.”

But at the other end of the spectrum were those who went on to succeed despite the challenges of living as minorities in a foreign country. Many of them were entrepreneurs. They empowered themselves through good ideas and hard work.

“They were the secret heroes in the communities, the entrepreneurs,” she said. “They changed themselves and, in the process, changed the community.”

It made Tsavaris think of her own father, a Greek immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 15 unable to speak English and now is a successful restauranteur.

“So much of what we are as a country is about problem solving and self reliance,” she said. “This is such an amazing opportunity to bring entrepreneurial thinking to kids.”

Tsavaris acknowledges her concept is unfinished. In fact, she asked the fellowship committee for permission to develop her idea over two years, while the others are aiming to be ready to start managing schools in 2015.

She thinks middle school is the right age to target and hopes to adapt an entrepreneurial training program she developed for kids to be the basis of the school’s curriculum.

“I know I have a lot of work to do,” she said. “I’ve not been in a traditional school. I have a lot to learn. Part of that is finding the right team.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”