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Who should replace Lewis Ferebee as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee at Indianapolis Public Schools meeting at Glendale Library about closing three high schools in 2017. Ferebee said Monday he'd be leaving IPS for D.C. at the end of January.

Indianapolis’ education community is already mulling what kind of leader should replace Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who announced Monday that he’s leaving to head D.C. public schools.

With the 31,000-student school district in a state of flux, school board members and advocates say there is no time to waste. The district closed high schools last year. Two candidates opposed to innovation schools — the group of charter and charter-like schools managed by outside operators that was one of Ferebee’s main achievements — were recently elected to the school board. And despite the passage of a referendum to send more taxpayer money to schools, more large cuts are looming.

“Certainly it’s an important, critical time for IPS — the work that we’re doing with them, how they approach teacher pay and principal pay,” Mark Fisher, who leads policy for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said. “It’s going to be a critical hire for Dr. Ferebee’s replacement, and especially with several new board members joining the board, they’ll be drinking from the firehose.”

First, Indianapolis Public Schools board members will have to decide if they want to hire from within the community or pursue a national search for their new leader. Board president Michael O’Connor said the school board would meet soon in executive session to hammer out next steps.

“We’ll gather as a board and make some immediate decisions on a transition period,” O’Connor said. “This is a particularly touchy time period because you’ve got a board transition occurring, so we’ll make sure to be very inclusive.”

Mary Ann Sullivan, an outgoing board member, said her advice to her colleagues would be to keep it local. Don’t make the process to find Ferebee’s replacement lengthier than it needs to be, she said, noting that there are definitely people in Indianapolis who are ready to step in to take over, though she declined to provide names.

“Things can drag on a long time, and in the meantime, people have to go to work every day and get things done for kids,” Sullivan said. “I would prefer a very, very short turnaround to new leadership.”

A few possible internal candidates exist, including Ferebee’s deputy Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and his chief of staff Ahmed Young. Another local option would be to pluck the leader of a neighboring township, as IPS did before Ferebee with former Superintendent Eugene White.

A national search would likely take longer than a local hire, leaving an interim leader at the helm for some stretch of time. But with budget cuts and school closures looming, any outsider would need to be a quick study — and an attractive superintendent candidate might be hesitant to join a district facing those difficult realities.

“This is certainly going to be a more challenging transition, especially if the board does a national search and you look to bring someone in from the outside,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of data out there, so I don’t think a new superintendent is going to be coming in blind to the challenges that the district faces or, quite frankly, some of the tough decisions we know that they’ll need to make.”

The selection could prove challenging because of the new board make-up. The two new board members are not in lockstep with Ferebee’s philosophies, and it’s unclear how easy it will be for the new board to reach a consensus.

As far as who that new leader should be, insiders focused on the need for someone with strong communication skills, both with the public and with politicians in the statehouse. Ferebee, who took heat for not always garnering grassroot support for changes, specifically mentioned collaboration as a skill that his successor will need.

“Continue the collaborative spirit,” Ferebee advised in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It would be unfortunate if we became isolated from our partners and we’re back to what I call random acts of improvement … We must hold on to it.”

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a group that supports charter schools in IPS and has worked closely with Ferebee, agrees. Brown said the district needs the community on its side as it continues rolling out changes.

“One thing I’ve learned over the past five years is that change is really hard, and when you think about the series of changes that have happened in IPS, it has been a lot,” Brown said. “One of the important things when you’re going through change is to ensure that you’re communicating that change effectively, and it’s important to prioritize those who are impacted the most.”

And that isn’t limited to local partners either — the next superintendent of Indiana’s largest school district needs to have the ear of state leaders and lawmakers as well, advocates say, especially as Indiana heads into a new legislative session where school funding and teacher pay will be central debates.

“It’s not just what’s happening with our city, but how we interact with the legislature and how state policy is set.” Fisher said. “That is something that has gone very underappreciated when it comes to how Dr. Ferebee has worked that end of Market Street.”

Ferebee’s replacement will also have to consider whether to keep up his growing network of innovation schools. The controversial schools have won some support across the city, but critics are calling for a closer look at the model before it is allowed to grow. Figuring out how to balance growth and evaluation of the young program will be key to winning the support of board members and community members alike.

Board member Venita Moore said it was too early to make any kind of conclusion about whether innovation schools work or not, but she says over the next year the board will be able to better evaluate where the district is at. Although she said she’d prefer if Ferebee didn’t leave at such a pivotal time, she’s got her eyes on what’s coming next.

“I’m looking for someone that can think outside the box, who is very open to looking at different things but also willing to look at what we have and see how we can shape what we have,” she said. “It’s not a secret that I am open to a portfolio of schools … but I am also about ensuring that as we move forward, that we are assured that the direction we are currently going is in the correct direction.”

Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, a group that organizes parents and has often spoken against the Ferebee’s administration, said she was skeptical that the district should continue its strong march in favor of charter school partnerships. She thinks the focus of the new board and, eventually, its new leader, should be nailing down what does and doesn’t work.

“The priority should be evaluating the effectiveness of these partnerships,” Scott said. “It’s very concerning that three innovation schools are under (school quality reviews) with the district,” adding that because those schools are measured according to a more generous growth-only yardstick, it’s even more troubling that they’re struggling.

“How can we make sure what we have now is effective for all students, especially those who are most vulnerable — poor, black, brown kids,” Scott said. “We need to know if it’s working in the first place and if it should be expanded.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.