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Monday, May 16, 2022

Dr. Patricia Payne’s 57-year impact on Indianapolis Public Schools

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Growing up, Dr. Patricia Payne always knew she wanted to be in education. She joked, “I came out of the womb knowing I wanted to be a teacher. My mother, my aunts, some of my uncles were all teachers in IPS.” 

Her mother taught fourth grade at IPS School 41, which no longer exists. It was her mother’s dedication to education that encouraged her to pursue it as well. Payne remembers her mom getting up and going to work with so much joy and love for the students she taught. 

Payne joined IPS in 1962. Her first 25 years with the district were spent in the classroom where she taught second grade most years. Over time, she noticed the classrooms getting more diverse, the parents getting less involved in their children’s education and the teaching force getting whiter. Today, 75 percent of the IPS teachers are white, while 79 percent of students in the district are students of color, according to the Indiana Department of Education. 

So, Payne began petitioning for a program that would educate teachers and administrators about racism and how it manifests in school settings. In 1987 Superintendent Dr. James Adams responded to her requests with funding and the opportunity to create a space for members of the IPS community to talk about these issues.

“I really feel like Dr. Adams’ assistant, Lorenza Dixon who was Black, helped make this office a reality,” she said of the unexpected support. “They let us open up the Office of African-American and Multicultural Education and brought me out of the classroom to run it.” 

The office, which is now known as the Racial Equity Office, has been running ever since. It began its diversity and inclusion efforts by including more books in media centers that reflected the students in the schools, but now it’s grown to something much bigger. The office holds cultural events year-round and two-day diversity trainings once a month for educators and community members. The training focuses on racism as a system and how to correct it. There are 22 schools in the district, each with their own equity teams that work with the main office to ensure their school is staying on top of the inequalities that exist within their school. To date, more than 2,000 teachers have been through the racial equity training. 

“The IPS Racial Equity Office is creating tangible change and sparking conversations that foster equality,” said John Chambers, a seventh-grade special education teacher at Edison School of the Arts. “The training inspired us to launch a school-based Racial Equity team at Edison to support the district’s efforts!” 

Payne is overwhelmed by where the school district has come since she started, but it hasn’t come without struggles. “There are so many people who say they don’t see color, but if you don’t see color then you don’t see me,” she explained. “Over the years I’ve gotten hateful letters from people because of what we’re trying to do, but that just lets me know that we’re doing the right thing.” 

Even though there have been hard times, she’s proud of the strides the school district has made and encourages young people who have an interest in teaching to pursue it, no matter what. “We need Black women and men who understand that when you’re in this struggle, it’s not a 9-to-5 job, it’s 24/7, everything you do is connected to the struggle for racial equity and inclusion,” she said. “To young people coming out of university, there will be days when you have tears, there will be days when you are full of joy, but you can never give up.”

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