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A look back on the biggest stories of 2018 in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

It was a tumultuous year for Indianapolis Public Schools — and one that ended with a dramatic change in leadership.

The district’s growing number of innovation schools won national praise from charter advocates. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee touted the district’s decentralized, autonomous schools in front of charter-friendly groups such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Capping off the year, Ferebee’s selection as the new chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district affirmed both his rise and the district’s among national education circles.

But on the ground, some teachers and community members raised concerns over proposals to convert schools under the innovation strategy and the upheaval that those changes could wreak. Unhappiness also brewed over high school closures.

And underlying the year was a tough financial situation, which drove the district to ask for more funding through property tax increases, re-negotiating the requests until they were palatable to business leaders.

Here’s a look back at the biggest stories of 2018 in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Inside an innovation restart

Indianapolis Public Schools now has some 20 innovation schools. Go beyond the political divisions to peer inside one to see what the changes mean for students, parents, and educators.

At School 42, some parents were initially wary about a proposal to restart the chronically struggling school with an outside operator. One year in, they talk about the added extracurricular activities, the new approach to discipline, and the increased community engagement. They also talk about the teachers who left and the steep challenges the school still faces.

Read more: Inside a struggling Indianapolis school during its pivotal first year of innovation

Who will be in charge?

The school board is expected to start its search for a new superintendent in January. While some board members say they’d like someone who will continue Ferebee’s innovation schools strategy, it remains to be seen whether the entire board will agree — particularly newcomers skeptical of the approach.

One big question is whether the board will conduct a national search to bring in another outsider for the job, or whether board members will look internally for a homegrown leader, such as interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson. Read on to see why she would be likely to continue Ferebee’s innovation strategy.

Read more: What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

A power shift

Two outsiders who have been critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools board defeated incumbents in November’s election, a change that could prove pivotal for a district that has garnered a national reputation for its partnerships with charter schools.

Read more: How backlash to big changes in Indianapolis Public Schools fueled board upsets

Follow the money

Indiana’s largest school system is embarking on an unusual, three-year partnership with the local chamber of commerce designed to carry out extensive cuts that the business group proposed for balancing the district’s budget, including possible school closures, reduced transportation, and staff reductions.

Read more: IPS and Indy Chamber outline unconventional three-year partnership to cut spending

National spotlight

A high-profile “60 Minutes” interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos highlighted an Indianapolis innovation school, Cold Spring School.

Cold Spring was the location for one of the most awkward moments of the segment, when “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl asked DeVos if it hurt to be “the most hated Cabinet secretary.”

Read more: You probably didn’t notice Betsy DeVos was at an Indianapolis school on ‘60 Minutes’

Something different

Purdue Polytechnic High School doesn’t have traditional classrooms. That’s because its founders are aiming to redesign high school with the ultimate, ambitious goal of creating a school that will prepare more students for degrees in science, technology, math, and engineering — particularly students of color and those from low-income families.

Read more: Purdue is trying to upend the traditional high school model. Here’s what it looks like

Teacher leadership

Indianapolis Public Schools educators at School 107 say a new teacher leadership program, known as opportunity culture, has dramatically stemmed teacher turnover: It gives new teachers, who can often feel overwhelmed, support. And it allows experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without leaving the classroom.

Read more: Teachers kept quitting this Indianapolis school. Here’s how the principal got them to stay

Holding the reins

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.

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

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United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

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These were our 10 most-read Chicago education stories in 2018

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
A story about a 16-year-old student struggling to read was one of our most-read stories of the year. Here his aunt, Katrina Falkner, heads into his high school for a meeting with the special education team.

From a principal’s first-person column on personalized learning to a profile of a teen struggling to read, these were our most-read stories of the year.

  1. Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that. This conversation with a child psychologist from Lurie Children’s Hospital who advises local educators on identifying and handling trauma resonated with educators and parents alike.
  2. Meet Javion: He’s 16 and struggling to read in Chicago schools. How did 16-year-old Javion Grayer end up in high school barely able to read? This story examines how many forces in the city and its schools can threaten learning.
  3. I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate. This first-person column from Lisa Epstein, the principal of Lee Elementary, was the most read column we published this year. “Personalized learning looks different in every classroom,” she writes, “but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student.”
  4. Rauner and Pritzker are at odds over most education issues — but agree on this one point. Hint: It’s money. But listening back to the interviews with the candidates, which we conducted in partnership with WBEZ, helps paint a picture of the state of education in Illinois.
  5.  How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. Here’s how one principal is making inroads at her school.
  6. Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students. The report has already been cited as reasoning in district-level decision-making.
  7. Is your school one of the city’s top rated? Our database of school ratings included a school’s total points scored on the Chicago rating system, known as SQRP.
  8. Three out of four kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. The data is the first look statewide at how many children show up to kindergarten prepared.
  9. Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs.“Fs and Ds are worthless,” one principal exclaimed. We looked at his case. 
  10. Why Noble teachers say Noble CEO’s downfall could boost unionization efforts. This story is one of many we’ll continue to watch in 2019.