Who Is In Charge

Mary Ann Sullivan, former legislator, poised to become new IPS school board president

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Mary Ann Sullivan, who was elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board in 2014, is expected to be named board president Friday.

The Indianapolis Public School Board has been transformed since 2012 by outsiders pushing changes but former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan could be the first one to be picked as board president.

Sullivan said she’s interested in the job, and none of her fellow board members has yet emerged as a potential challenger. The new president will be named at Friday’s organizational meeting to begin the new year.

“I’ve expressed an interest in that role,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how things go. I’ve been working on a lot of these issues for a long, long time. … I’d be very interested in playing a larger leadership role.”

Sullivan, a Democrat who sometimes bucked her party by supporting charter schools and other reforms was defeated in a run for the Indiana Senate in 2012 but then won a school board seat in a landslide in 2014.

“It requires somebody with a lot of skills in diplomacy,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who served as president during a prior term on the board. “I think (Mary Ann) will do a good job of that.”

The board has not yet chosen or publicly discussed as a group who will serve as the next president. But Chalkbeat interviewed several board members, and none expressed interest in leading the board or knew of any other members who planned to throw their hats in the ring. The field is also narrowed because four of the seven board seats are up for election this fall, and some members are reluctant to choose a president who will be on the ballot.

Serving as board president is a significant commitment, said board member Sam Odle. He had expressed interest in the position in past years, but he is no longer looking to be board president, he said.

Although Sullivan is relatively new to the IPS board, she is a political veteran and long-time advocate for education reform, dating to her time as an IPS parent. As member of Indiana House of Representatives, she was known for supporting policies like accountability and school choice.

The board has gotten a complete overhaul thanks to the well-financed and highly contested elections of 2012 and 2014 — six of the seven members now consistently support education reform proposals such as school autonomy and innovation schools.

But Sullivan would be the first of the newly elected members to lead the IPS board. The current president, Diane Arnold, is supportive of the same reform efforts but pre-dates the latest push for change. She was elected in 2004, before the board shakeup. The shift would be largely symbolic.

“(Mary Ann) represents some of the changes the board majority has made clear that we want to move toward,” Bentley said.

The board has demonstrated strong support for district plans such as reducing the central office, increasing freedom for principals and partnering with outside organizations to manage some schools. The next year could be politically volatile, however, because four seats are on the ballot this fall.

What isn’t clear yet, is who will for run those seats — whether incumbents or challengers — and which races will be the most competitive. The board members up for election include Odle, Arnold, Michael O’Connor and Gayle Cosby.

Keeping on experienced members will help the board pursue its goals, said Odle, who is planning to run again.

O’Connor — who joined the board this fall, after Caitlin Hannon left the board for a Mind Trust fellowship — said he is thinking carefully about whether he has the time to run for reelection or serve another term on the board. He expects to decide within the next couple of months.

Arnold and Cosby did not respond to requests for comment.

Because the election is non-partisan, there is no primary and the filing deadline is not until Aug. 26. The election is Nov. 8.

Cosby won her seat in 2012 with the help of significant funding from organizations that support reform, including the Indiana chapter of advocacy group Stand for Children, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Democrats for Education Reform.

But as a board member, she has sometimes opposed policies favored by reformers, particularly plans to partner with outside organizations to manage IPS schools. With her seat up for election, some of those who helped her win last time could work against her reelection.

Executive Director of Stand for Children Indiana, Justin Ohlemiller, declined to discuss whether the group will support Cosby or endorse another candidate this early in the year. But he shared an email from a Stand parent-leader criticizing Cosby.

“Each school board member that decides to run again will have a record, and they’ll have the opportunity … to talk about their record with the parents in the organization,” he said. “Gayle will have that opportunity as well as other incumbents.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: