IPS says it wants school board's blessing for move toward more freedom for schools

The Indianapolis School Board expects to vote next week on a “framework” for shifting the district toward a system with more freedom for principals and schools over the next three years.

The basics of the plan were shared last month, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and district leaders said Monday at a work session that they wanted the board’s blessing to continue shaping the plan. The board meets Oct. 27 to discuss its agenda and Oct. 29 to vote.

There are still several steps before the school system more fully empowers schools and shifts the central office toward a service center rather than a command center, administrators said.

“We should think of this always as an active strategy and not an end goal in itself,” said the district’s innovation chief, Aleesia Johnson.

The plan would put schools in three categories next year:

  • Traditionally managed schools. These schools will be directly overseen by the central office, as schools mostly have been in the past.
  • Autonomous schools. At these schools, principals will work in conjunction with a new governing board to manage their schools’ budget, curriculum, school day length, staffing and teacher training decisions locally.
  • Innovation network schools. These are schools that are externally managed through a partnership, such as IPS School 103. It is being managed independently by Phalen Leadership Academies, a charter school network.

Johnson said there are four ways a school can become an innovation school:

  • The district can decide to house a charter school in the building.
  • A district school can request to convert to an innovation school.
  • The district can “restart” a persistently failing school with new leadership and curriculum.
  • The district can start an entirely new school in one of its buildings, such as the new Emma Donnan Elementary School, which is sharing space in the same building as Emma Donnan Middle School.

Conversion schools must create a nonprofit governing board to help guide the principal.

If the board approves, more details will come, such as a process for schools to apply to become either an autonomous school or to join the innovation school network.

Board members asked that IPS give guidance to help schools that want to convert to innovation schools pick diverse board members with high expectations.

“How do make sure they don’t choose board members who won’t hold them accountable?” board member Gayle Cosby asked.

Johnson said the IPS board must ultimately approve any school’s plan, giving the board members a chance to ask those questions.

“There really should be a clear set of questions that has to be documented that these aren’t just good educators, they really do understand cultural diversity,” board member Sam Odle said.

The board will consider four recommendations next week, Johnson said:

  • Green-lighting the district to create a process for selecting autonomous or innovation schools.
  • Allowing IPS to collaborate with outside organizations, such as the consultant ERS, on strategic design work for the schools.
  • Giving the district leeway to identify other elements of school management it can allow autonomous schools to control.
  • Permitting administrators to create new systems of collaboration across divisions of central services.

Also coming is a plan for giving information, and getting feedback, from parents and schools. Odle and Cosby said that should be a high priority.

“How do we communicate the whole thing to parents,” Odle asked, “so they feel they are getting something versus losing something?”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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