Future of Schools

IPS swears in three new board members, including two skeptics of the administration

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
The Indianapolis Public Schools Board and interim-superintendent Aleesia Johnson

Indianapolis Public Schools ushered in what is likely to be a new era Monday, swearing in three new members including two whose campaigns challenged the current administration.

New board members Susan Collins, a retired teacher, and federal employee Taria Slack defeated incumbents who had been supportive of initiatives that captured national attention for Indianapolis Public Schools and its outgoing superintendent, Lewis Ferebee.

Collins and Slack have specifically expressed skepticism about the growth of innovation schools, which are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella.  This year, more than one in four district students attends one of those 20 innovation schools, and the school board has been largely supportive of the approach.

But with the district at a pivotal moment as Ferebee heads to Washington, D.C., the new board could slow the transformation.

During their campaigns, Slack and Collins were endorsed by the teachers union and the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is critical of the current administration.

Slack, for one, said she will continue to push the board to look critically at the direction of the district.

“The people in the community have spoken up,” she said. “I want to make sure that we’re going in the right direction with IPS and making sure that we’re looking at the data before we are making decisions on the board and doing proper research with innovation schools and closing schools and things of that nature.”

The third new member, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, is more closely aligned with the current administration. He replaces Kelly Bentley, who did not run for reelection. Hawkins was endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana, a parent organizing group that has supported innovation schools.

Despite a contentious board election, the first meeting of the year was short, and there was little apparent friction.

“I want to welcome our new board members,” said Michael O’Connor, who was elected board president for the second time. “It will be challenging, it will be interesting, it will be exciting, and it will be thankless.”

The meeting was the first led by interim-Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who took over the district this week after Ferebee was tapped as the mayor’s nominee to run the school system in the nation’s capital. The job is not yet a done deal, as Ferebee must be confirmed by the city council, and his handling of an abuse scandal while in Indianapolis is being scrutinized.

Amid the changes in its membership, the board will have some stability in leadership. The members voted unanimously for the current board officers to remain in their positions. In addition to O’Connor, Venita Moore will be vice-president, and Elizabeth Gore will be secretary.

“Considering that we have three new board members and an interim superintendent, I think continuity and stability in 2019 will be critical to our success,” said veteran board member Diane Arnold.

Future of Schools

The political arm of the Indy Chamber spent $100,000 on the IPS board election and referendums

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

The largest donors to Indianapolis Public Schools board candidates were two local political groups with competing visions for the district’s future.

The political action committee affiliated with the Indy Chamber gave close toe $50,000 to three school board candidates — an investment that only helped them win one seat — according to annual campaign finance disclosures released this week.

The donations come at a time when the local chamber of commerce is increasingly entwined with the district. The business group formed a partnership with the district in September to help implement a cost-cutting plan, which was the culmination of months of negotiations. The chamber, in turn, was an influential backer of two referendums that helped raise funds for the district. In addition to vocally supporting the tax measures, the political action committee gave more than $50,000 to that campaign.

The candidates that the chamber supported were all endorsed by Stand for Children, a parent organizing group that supports strategies such partnerships with charter operators. All three candidates were seen as allies of former-superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

The referendums passed easily, but the chamber was not as successful when it came to the school board. Only one of the contenders they backed, Evan Hawkins, won a seat. Incumbents Mary Ann Sullivan and Dorene Rodríguez Hoops were defeated. The group’s contributions included cash and in-kind donations such as consulting.

The largest donor in the race was the political arm of the state teachers union, which contributed $68,400 to three candidates who all expressed criticism of Ferebee’s administration, as Chalkbeat reported in October. That group backed Michele Lorbieski, who lost to Hawkins, as well Susan Collins and Taria Slack, who defeated incumbents to win seats on the board.

The latest disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana —Sullivan, Hoops, and Hawkins — likely received significant unreported benefits. The group typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee.

Here are some of the most notable contributions from campaign disclosures:

IPS referendums

The Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which supported the referendums for additional funding for the school system, raised more than $397,000 last year. By far the largest donor was Stand for Children, which donated nearly $328,000.

At-large

Susan Collins, who won her school board election, raised nearly $17,000. The bulk of that money came from a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, who lost to Collins, raised almost $34,000. That included more than $14,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, $5,000 from Reid Hoffman (a LinkedIn co-founder known for political spending), and $2,000 from Laurene Powell Jobs.

A third at-large candidate, Joanna Krumel, who also lost to Collins, raised $200.

District 3

Evan Hawkins, who won a seat, raised nearly $35,000. That included about $14,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee and $1,000 Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA.

Michele Lorbieski, who lost to Hawkins, raised almost $28,000, primarily from a $24,900 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

A disclosure for Sherry Shelton, who also lost to Hawkins, has not been posted by the Marion County Election Board. Her latest disclosure showed she raised had raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed.

District 5

Taria Slack, who won the election, raised nearly $30,000, including a $28,500 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, who lost to Slack, raised almost $41,000. That included more than $20,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, and $5,000 from Hoffman.

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?

“Sad!”

“Frustrated!”

This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.