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Innovation advocates agree: This stuff is complicated

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As community members and education advocates continue a heated debate about the merits of Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation model, one glaring issue remains: It’s hard to talk about because of how complicated it is.

Advocates of the innovation model said as much during a panel discussion Feb. 6 at Little Bethel Baptist Church.

The panel included representatives from the mayor’s office, IPS, The Mind Trust and two innovation schools, as well as an IPS parent.

Part of the reason people get confused talking about innovation schools is because of the jargon. For example, there are multiple branches of innovation schools including new, restart and conversion.

Innovation schools are operated by outside charter or nonprofit partners and have access to district buildings and services. In exchange, IPS gets credit for those schools’ enrollment numbers and other performance data.

“When you start throwing words like restart and conversion, I’m out,” IPS parent Cesar Roman said when asked about challenges with the innovation model.

The comment drew a laugh, but it’s a serious issue for parents like Roman who want their children to get the best educational opportunities available to them. Roman said he comes from a family that didn’t understand the value of education, and he’s trying to change that for his children.

A 2019 study by Public Impact, an education consulting group in North Carolina, looked at four elementary restart innovation schools and found “it is not yet clear what impact IPS’s restarts will have on student performance outcomes,” but added there is “reason for optimism.”

Patrick McAlister, who leads the Office of Education Innovation, which authorizes mayor-sponsored charter schools, said “clarity” has been a challenge from his position.

Not everyone understands Indiana charter schools are public schools, for example, and that they must have open enrollment policies like traditional public schools.

“This stuff’s really complicated and messy,” McAlister said.

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has played a big role in driving the district’s path to innovation, said he doesn’t really care what schools are called; what matters is quality and access.

“Sometimes I think adults complicate it,” he said. “… That complexity has created a vacuum.”

Enrollment estimates from IPS released in 2019 showed about 26% of students attend innovation schools, which have helped the district stabilize enrollment numbers following years of decline.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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