Future of Schools

As Indianapolis moves to give principals more freedom, tough choices are on the horizon

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students listen as their teacher gives a small group lesson at Indianapolis Public School's Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Indianapolis’ largest district is pursuing a new vision for education that aims to shift power from the central office to building principals. But as leaders move forward with their plan, they are facing a host of questions over how — and when — to cede control.

If schools are historically low-performing, should their principals still get full freedom? How can central office staff be encouraged to give up power? What decisions should be left up to principals?

Those are a few of the issues facing Indianapolis Public Schools leaders as they pursue a plan to give principals at all traditional schools in the district more control over instruction, budgets, and staffing by 2020.

Twelve schools have already been designated “autonomous” schools and given some of that freedom by the district, though they are still bound by the teachers union contract. That’s a separate effort from the district’s innovation schools, which are not unionized and are managed by outside partners who have near complete control over their operations.

The task ahead of the district is to figure out how to keep its promise to grant new freedom to dozens more schools – including schools that have struggled in the past.

Board members grappled with how that should work this week during a board retreat. Here are some of the big questions the board discussed.

Should all principals get the same level of flexibility?

Although most board members support giving principals more freedom, there was little consensus on just what that should ultimately look like.

Board member Diane Arnold said that low-performing schools often rely on support from the district, and giving them too much freedom could lead to “disaster.”

“For me the key is performance,” she said. “I think if all of our schools had great building leaders, I would be comfortable. But I don’t think we are there yet.”

Board member Elizabeth Gore disagreed. “No matter what the school performance is, that particular principal should be able to have the same flexibility as a high-performing school,” she said.

How will district staff need to adapt?

Nearly all of the board members agreed that for autonomous schools to succeed, the district needs leaders who are OK with giving up power and principals ready to take on new responsibilities.

Some are not yet ready for the change, many board members agreed.

The district needs people in the central office who “innately trust in the leadership of their buildings,” said board member Kelly Bentley, and “the right leaders in those buildings that can handle that kind of autonomy.”

Are there some things — such as the arts — schools should be required to offer?

Some board members argued that the district should set requirements for how schools use their time, including what courses they offer or how much time they allot for things like recess. Others suggested that the focus should be on establishing goals and allowing school leaders to reach them however they wish.

“There ought to be some minimum requirements on what has to be offered across the board,” said Bentley. “If schools want to go above that, I think they should be free to do that.”

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan thought otherwise. The district leadership could instead set goals for things like musical exposure, for example.

“How the schools do that is up to the school,” she said. “I don’t think we should get that prescriptive.”


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).

In talks

Hopson asks state to let struggling Memphis school remain with local district

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking Tennessee’s education chief to let Shelby County Schools keep control of American Way Middle School and place the struggling school in its own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone.

And Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that she’s willing to talk.

Hopson’s official request came this week despite McQueen’s plan for the Memphis district to convert American Way Middle to a charter school or risk having it placed in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Our Board voted to place American Way in the iZone next year,” Hopson wrote McQueen on Tuesday. “The Board was uncomfortable waiting for an additional year before taking action.”

McQueen wants the school to become a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. The board voted to place it in the iZone a year earlier than that.

But Hopson said the district’s concerns extend beyond timing.

“During its robust discussion regarding a district-led charter conversion, the Board was particularly concerned because we are unaware of any middle school charter operators who have strong track records of success in the turnaround space,” Hopson wrote. “For these reasons, the Board indicated that it will not approve a district-led charter conversation.

He added: “Given the I-Zone’s progress, we respectfully request that the State allow American Way to remain in the I-Zone for at least 3 years. Notably, one of American Way’s feeder schools is also in the I-Zone.”

McQueen said Friday that her office needs more information about the district’s proposal for American Way Middle before she makes a decision.

“We had a conversation with the district this week to make it clear that simply saying the school will be in the iZone next year does not tell us what the plan for that school is, and we still need more details on what it would look like for the school to be served by the iZone,” McQueen told Chalkbeat through a spokeswoman. “It is also not clear what charter options the district explored.”