change at the top

D.C., meet your next chancellor: 8 things to know about Lewis Ferebee and what he might bring to the district

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Washington, D.C., is getting a new school chancellor, and it’s Lewis Ferebee, a former teacher, principal, and the current superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools.

With a modest demeanor and careful speaking style, Ferebee has kept a low public profile. But Ferebee has made a name for himself in education reform circles for the policies he’s pursued, forging a particularly close partnership with charter schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, the central district of the 11 that make up the city, has been fighting against the forces of enrollment loss and concentrated poverty for decades. D.C. has different policy structures and a different political environment — as well as a much higher profile.

And although Ferebee told the Washington Post that he doesn’t see “any solutions that are being implemented in Indianapolis that I would say are absolutely necessary and important to the District right now,” the best guide to how Ferebee will work in D.C. is likely his five-year tenure in Indianapolis.

Here’s what you need to know about Lewis Ferebee.

1. He’s a former teacher and principal of district schools in North Carolina.

Ferebee was an unconventional choice for Indianapolis back in 2013. He had 16 years under his belt as an educator and a history of turning around schools, but he had no experience with charter schools and hadn’t served in the top spot in a large district.

He began his teaching career in Virginia, then moved to Greensboro, N.C., where he became an elementary and middle school principal credited with turning around those low-performing schools. He then supervised all city middle schools, and later led a special district that included all of Greensboro’s lowest-scoring schools.

He came to Indianapolis after serving as chief of staff for the Durham Public School system. Ferebee first attracted the attention of two school board members at a National School Boards Association meeting. “There was just something about him,” board member Annie Roof said at the time.

2. He’s known for creating a network of charter and charter-like schools under the auspices of the district.

Known as the innovation network, this group of schools has probably been both Ferebee’s most heralded and most criticized policy initiative.

Here’s how it works: The schools are a mix of completely new entities, former traditional district schools that had been struggling, previously independent charter schools, and former traditional district schools whose principals wanted more autonomy. The schools’ operations get farmed out to a charter network or another nonprofit groups under a contract with the school district. They are housed in district buildings, and their test scores and enrollment count toward district figures. Innovation network teachers are not unionized or governed by the district’s teachers’ contract.

Schools in the network now educate over 20 percent of the district’s students.

This approach is closely in line with the ideas favored by some national philanthropies that went to bring IPS’s approach to other cities. But it’s caused fierce pushback locally, where critics see it as privatization with limited accountability.

“The current board has been on a mission to privatize public schools in Indianapolis under the guise of innovation and/or reform, becoming the largest charter management provider in the city,” wrote one newly elected board member.

“The idea that IPS can prosper without embracing change and by being unwilling to partner with others is asinine,” Ferebee wrote in a 2016 letter to the editor responding to similar criticism.

Initial state test results suggest that students in those schools made substantial gains. Complicating matters, though, is the fact that new innovation schools are graded in a way that makes them look better than existing district schools. There has not been a formal study of the performance of the innovation network.

In 2017, Ferebee himself said, “it’s too early to name the innovation model as the panacea for struggling schools.”

3. Ferebee has become a favorite of many in the education reform community.

Ferebee has been a regular at education reform-oriented conferences, sitting on panels put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, New Schools Venture Fund, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The Arnold Foundation, a national philanthropy that has backed the “portfolio model,” has also invested in IPS’s approach under Ferebee, sending millions to the Mind Trust and to the district.

“If The Mind Trust can help to produce … gains in Indianapolis, the city can serve as a model for other communities across the nation,” John Arnold said in a 2016 video.

2017 brought Ferebee a flurry of national attention. He joined Chiefs for Change, a reform-oriented national group of superintendents and schools chancellors. He was also chosen as a fellow with the Broad Academy (where former D.C. schools chief Kaya Henderson served as “superintendent in residence”). Charter leader Eva Moskowitz included Ferebee on a list she released of preferred candidates for the New York City job that eventually went to Richard Carranza, the former Houston superintendent. And IPS’s innovation network won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“It is a clear indication that the work in Indianapolis is seen as a national model,” Brandon Brown, head of the Mind Trust, said of Ferebee’s move to D.C.

4. He’s no firebrand.

Although Ferebee has been at the helm of controversial changes, he is a quiet presence. (Education Week once described him as “soft-spoken with a Zen-like demeanor.”) He prefers to work behind the scenes, makes relatively few public appearances in Indianapolis, and is known for having a small inner circle.

Ferebee followed the combative Eugene White into the superintendent’s job. White was often at odds with Republican city and state leaders. Ferebee proved more willing to play ball politically, working closely with Republican legislative leaders and pro-school-choice organizations to set the stage for his policy initiatives, drawing praise for his cooperative style.

5. He’s handled some scandal, but nothing earth-shaking.

Rigged graduation rates, an absenteeism crisis, families skirting enrollment rules — the issues at the center of D.C.’s various recent school scandals haven’t been prominent in Indianapolis.

In fact, it’s been a fairly scandal-free tenure for Ferebee, with one exception. The district drew intense criticism for its response to allegations that a school counselor had sex with students in 2016, not immediately reporting the claims to police or the Indiana Department of Child Services as required. (Ferebee acknowledged hearing about the initial allegations but said he was assured it was being reported properly.) Three federal lawsuits are still underway, and the counselor eventually pled guilty to three felony charges. Two other district officials were charged with misdemeanors related to the incident, and several resigned from their jobs with the district or were fired.

Ferebee has invested in trying to curb student absenteeism, though. In 2015-16, the district began offering rewards for attendance and targeted help for the frequently absent. It later hired eight new graduation counselors, efforts that have modestly boosted attendance.

6. He’s willing to compromise, and some say to capitulate.

In 2017, Ferebee and IPS proposed a nearly $1 billion tax hike to benefit schools. After opposition from the city’s chamber of commerce, the board scaled back the proposal. The new version passed last month, and officials have said the bulk of the money will go toward teacher raises.

The district is now set to face steep cuts, including possible school closures. The chamber and district agreed to a partnership where the chamber pays for two new district administrators and consulting by outside groups to implement the cost-cutting plan.

Observers say this level of involvement by a chamber of commerce is rare. When a school board member questioned whether the district would have the final say on the cuts, Ferebee tried to assure her that the district is “clearly driving this work.”

Ferebee didn’t roll over entirely to the wishes of the chamber, whose support was considered key to convincing voters to support the referendum. The chamber’s suggested plan was for a $152 million tax hike and more cuts, which Ferebee said wasn’t high enough. The two sides settled on a request for $220 million over eight years and a second measure to raise $52 million for improvements to school buildings.

7. He has closed schools in the face of community opposition.

Last year, Ferebee shut down three high schools, leaving just four district-run high schools left. The move prompted strong pushback and led to a substantial displacement of students and teachers.

The closures were not described as a school-improvement strategy, but as a financial necessity.

“Many people understand the need to right-size our high schools,” he said at the time, “but not many people wanted their high school to close, and it was a tough decision that had to be made.”

The four high schools left open were closer to the center of the city, making transportation easier as the district implemented a choice-based system that encouraged schools to specialize. But local critics said the district didn’t do enough listening.

“There was a lot of criticism with the closing of schools, bringing in charter schools through innovation schools, and converting schools to innovation,” said Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, which has has opposed many of the district’s changes. “A lot of the community input is one the very tail end of those processes.”

8. He’s willing to dig into details.

When Ferebee was hired in 2013, he thought Indianapolis Public Schools was operating with a $30 million deficit. He spent that winter break digging into the district’s budget. And what he found was a shocker: the district wasn’t in the red — IPS had just been overstating budget shortfalls for years, and the district actually had an $8 million surplus.

Ferebee had his analysis corroborated and then shared the news with the board before firing the district’s chief financial officer.

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument