Despite bitter opposition from some teachers and community advocates, the Indianapolis Public Schools Board narrowly approved a measure Thursday to give the principal at School 19 more freedom by converting the school to innovation status.
The board voted 4-3 to convert School 19, which is also known as SUPER School, to an innovation school.
Principal John McClure had applied for the school to voluntarily convert to innovation status, which gives a new nonprofit oversight of daily management at the school. Some members of the board were skeptical of whether McClure, who is in his first year as principal, is ready for the responsibility and whether the school needs the additional freedom to meet his goals. But ultimately, a majority of the board members deferred to the judgment of the administration, which recommended the proposal.
“We’ve created a process, and that process entrusts people who are highly qualified to do the work evaluating that this board can’t do,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan. “In order to maintain the integrity of the process, we need to let the process work.”
Sullivan voted in support of the measure, along with board members Michael O’Connor, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, and Diane Arnold. Kelly Bentley, Elizabeth Gore, and Venita Moore voted against the conversion.
“I’m trying to understand what would be the difference in the education of our children,” said Moore Tuesday. She also raised concerns about the fact the school currently has a D rating from the state. “Shouldn’t we be trying to provide you with additional supports in order to achieve what you need to?”
This was the second time McClure made his case to the board. In March, the request was removed from the agenda before board members could vote because some were skeptical of the proposal.
In the three years since the district started creating innovation schools, four have chosen to convert and four more have been restarted by the district as innovation schools managed by outside charter operators.
McClure pitched the conversion to innovation as a way for the magnet school to double down on its theme of action based learning, which incorporates physical activity throughout the school day on the premise that movement helps students learn.
The model was successful when it rolled out about six years ago, McClure said, but in the years since the school adopted this focus, there has been significant staff turnover, and many current teachers have not been trained in the model. By becoming an innovation school, he said, it will have access to extra funds for training — specifically about $25,000 out of a $125,000 startup grant from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools.
That pitch, however, did not persuade all of the school board members.
Board member Kelly Bentley said Thursday she was voting against the proposal because of concerns that other innovation schools were not supportive district partners. But she also said that the principal had not made a compelling case for the innovation conversion.
“I am concerned that this has created a lot of division in the school,” Bentley added. “I worry about that — that it has created some real conflict in the school.”
While this was an especially contentious debate, other school leaders have abandoned plans to seek innovation status. Last fall, the principals at School 58 and School 105 sent letters expressing interest in conversion. But the schools, which are both rated F by the state, never appeared before the board.
Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, said the administration looks at whether schools have the capacity and desire to convert to innovation status before making a recommendation. She said the principal at School 19 has been able to win support from a core group of staff.
“It’s our belief that you can use a transition to innovation as a lever to accelerate student achievement,” Johnson said Tuesday.
The school also has the support of The Mind Trust, which works closely with the district in recruiting and preparing innovation school leaders. Brandon Brown, CEO of the nonprofit, said the group backed the application because the principal had the capacity to run an innovation school and there was enough support at the school that many high-performing teachers would remain.
“We’ve learned that the key to a conversion is that you have a school leader that has demonstrated the desire and the skill set to effectively manage a nonprofit,” Brown said.
Innovation schools are an unusually controversial strategy, in part because most teachers at the schools are employed by the nonprofits or charter operators that run them, and they are not represented by the district teachers union.
Even given the normal level of controversy, the campaign to convert the SUPER School to innovation status was more heated than usual. The board meetings on Tuesday and Thursday were crowded with teachers, parents, and advocates speaking on the issue.
At the meeting Tuesday, Chrissy Smith said teachers were afraid to speak out against the change. A member of the IPS Community Coalition, which is critical of the current administration, Smith read a letter she said was from an anonymous teacher that claimed parents at the school were misled into signing a petition in support of the conversion.
On Thursday, advocates who are critics of the administration again read letters they said were from teachers opposed to the conversion.
“There are SUPER School teachers who are afraid to come and speak to you in person,” said MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, one of the advocates. “It’s obvious that the fear is there.”
Eric Vanveelen, a second grade teacher, said that he is leaving the school because the principal chose to pursue innovation.
“It seems as if our new administration wants to tear down the place I hold so dear in order to build it up,” he said. “I and many of my colleagues disagree.”
Special education teacher My-Lan Martinez told the board that the process was not transparent. The school, she said, does not need to convert to meet the needs of its students because it already has significant flexibility.
“Our students do not need their teachers to attend additional professional development,” Martinez said. “They need their teachers there, in the classrooms, to be supported and empowered to teach them.”
Others, however, spoke in favor of the conversion.
On Thursday, several people read statements in support of innovation from parents who were not able to come to the meeting.
Holly Combs, a parent at the SUPER School and a staffer at School 57, said she supports innovation. Her son has dyslexia, but the school still celebrates his gifts, she said. As an innovation school, she said, it “will have more choices and have an ability to better serve my son.”
Nancy Stewart, a teacher who spoke Tuesday, asked the board to vote in favor of the conversion because she believes teachers need more training to incorporate action-based learning into classes. As an innovation school, they will also be able to modify the school schedule, and create new positions, she said.
“We have been named an action based learning program, however, action based learning is not a constant within our building,” Stewart said. “Teachers do not understand how to incorporate it effectively or are unwilling to.”