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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Competing Visions

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Although there are nine school districts in Marion County, a high level of attention continues to be placed on the largest, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS).

In recent months, several community groups and organizations have put forth bold plans to “reform” or “change” IPS, in an effort to increase academic achievement.

Why are these plans being presented? What kind of action steps are they promoting?

“The time is ripe for our city to actively discuss what its citizens envision to be a high quality education and school system,” said John Houser, a research associate with the Indiana University Center for Urban and Multicultural Education (CUME), which has conducted research into the matter.

Houser described urban education reform as a “wicked problem” that many agree exists, but cannot agree on common solutions or even the nature of the problem.

“Dialogue is essential to discovering common understandings, frameworks and possible new ways of doing things,” Houser said.

Ideas on how to enhance learning and teaching in IPS have been discussed for decades. Recent events, however, have prompted groups to come forward with plans that offer specific steps educators, parents and policy makers can take to boost test scores and graduation rates.

In August of last year, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) announced that it had been given approval by the state’s board of education to assume leadership of five underperforming schools, including four in IPS; Arlington Community High School, Howe and Manual High Schools, and Emma Donnan Middle School.

Four months later, a plan to transform IPS was presented by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit initiative organized in 2006 with the goal of promoting innovation in K-12 education. The Mind Trust described its proposal as “the boldest reform plan” in the country.

Officially known as “Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform IPS,” it was designed to send at least $200 million more a year to schools without raising taxes, provide universal pre-kindergarten instruction, give educators more autonomy in exchange for more accountability, and give parents more school choices.

“The Mind Trust’s call for change is based on our belief that all students – regardless of circumstances – can excel when they are provided with the right conditions and support,” said David Harris, president and CEO of the Mind Trust. “Most IPS Schools don’t have the conditions that research shows schools need to succeed. This plan creates those conditions.”

The Mind Trust said its goals for IPS could be achieved if the district shifts control of most resources, as well as decision making authority about issues such as hiring, curriculum and length of school day, from IPS’s central office to carefully selected high performing schools. Doing that, the proposal asserts, would give more options for leaders and teachers who are best positioned to make important decisions affecting their students.

In addition, The Mind Trust plan would restructure the IPS budget to set aside more funding for free pre-kindergarten education, invest $2.5 million in existing funds to recruit more talented teachers to IPS, use $7.5 million to help excellent educators in IPS launch new schools, and create a system of choice that would allow parents to select an IPS school that best meets the needs of their child.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Mind Trust Plan is its call for responsibility of IPS to be transferred to the mayor, who would appoint three members of a new five-person board.

Due to its call for sweeping changes, The Mind Trust’s plan generated both praise and sharp criticism as soon as it was presented. Supporters upheld the plan as a refreshing template for improvement, while others, including the CUME say it is not evidence based, and have bristled at the notion of internal restructuring and authority being shifted to the mayor and an un-elected board.

The Mind Trust plan sparked renewed interest in a debate over whether IPS needs serious reforms, and if so, what should those changes be. Seizing on the opportunity to engage concerned citizens, a coalition of 90 local community groups, IPS and the mayor’s office launched the initiative “What’s Possible Indy?”

Under the initiative, parents, students, teachers and others with concerns about IPS were invited to participate in one of the scheduled community conversations on education that took place throughout the city in July and August. Participants were also invited to share their opinions online at Whatspossibleindy.com.

Recommendations from the What’s Possible effort are scheduled to be released soon, and IPS Superintendent Dr. Eugene White and IPS officials have pledged to consider them.

“Dr. White has taken the unprecedented step of saying ‘hey, we want to know what the community thinks of us,’” said John Althardt, a spokesperson for IPS. “We want to know ways that we might be able to improve, and what the concerns and the priorities of the community are as we look forward to how education is going to develop in our district.”

The Greater Indianapolis Branch of the NAACP has encouraged people to get involved in the discussion, which it has called a rare opportunity for the Indianapolis community.

“This is an opportunity to make our voices heard, and it is so critical in order to save the children of our beloved Indianapolis community,” NAACP branch President Chrystal Ratcliffe said in a joint statement with education committee co-chairs Larry Barclay and Carole Craig.

For its part, The NAACP recently hosted its statewide education conference at Ivy Tech Community College, and has called on state leaders to look into racial disparities involving school discipline.

Another plan

As the discussion over public education in Indianapolis continued, another plan was presented by a coalition of local grassroots organizations. The proposal, “Local School Councils: Can Democracy Save IPS?”, is authored by John Loflin, a retired teacher, an IPS graduate and a member of the Black and Latino Policy Institute, and Alex Sage of the Education-Community Action Team.

“Simply put, we need more democracy in IPS, not less,” said City-County Councilman Jose Evans, who presented the proposal. He added that a plan is needed to liberate schools “from the top-down control of district bureaucracy and put the destiny of schools in the hands of the community.”

Essentially, the Local School Councils plan asserts that schools are stifled by executive directives that emphasize a “one-size-fits-all” concept. Authors say a higher level of autonomy is needed in order for schools and their students to raise test scores, and develop ways to overcome challenges that can impact the quality of education such as poverty, unemployment, violence, inadequate housing and health care disparities.

Most notably, the plan states that IPS can adopt the Local School Council concept that has been used to revitalize public schools in Chicago. In that city, schools are overseen by councils that normally include six parents, two community representatives, the principal, two teachers, a non-teaching staff member and a student.

“These days, education reformers focus almost exclusively on college and career readiness,” said Loflin. “Of course, both are important, but in the rush to ‘fuel the economy’, we have lost sight of public education’s higher civic responsibilities, which is to create an enlightened and active public that practice self-rule. We need public schools to fuel our democracy.”

The IPS plan

As groups present contrasting ideas for change in IPS, district officials say they have already recognized the need for change.

In fact, they note, some progress has already been made, and more is on the way. Graduation rates have increased by nearly 17 percent since 2009, for example and the district has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress in math.

IPS has presented its own strategic plan with four main objectives. The first is to increase district wide autonomy for schools that demonstrate competence in designated areas.

The district plans to do this by developing a checklist of required skills needed to gain the authority to make human resources, budget, purchasing and recruitment decisions. In addition, IPS will conduct decision-making workshops, develop a manual that describes district wide functions and clearly identify decisions that can be made at the school level.

The report says “20 percent of school-based decision making teams will demonstrate the skills needed to be granted authority to make human resources, budget, purchasing, marketing and recruitment decisions by spring of 2013. By the spring of 2014, that number should be at least 50 percent.”

In addition, the IPS plan pledges to increase academic performance and raise graduation rates by placing a greater emphasis on English/language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. Also, the plan calls for culturally relevant and best instructional practices in all classrooms. Finally, teacher accountability for student performance will be enhanced through an annual evaluation process, created in conjunction with the Indianapolis Education Association.

Althardt said IPS is anxious to review the report that will be issued as a result of the “What’s Possible?” community discussion.

“We will look at the ideas that directly apply to issues we can control, and with issues we do not have control over, we will consult with our community partners,” Althardt said. “These recommendations could benefit other districts as well, and we look forward to them being used to help our children reach their full potential.”

IPS at a glance

– 2011-12 Enrollment — 31,707.

– Graduation rate — 65 percent.

– Ethnicity — 53 percent Black, 23 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, nearly 5 percent multiracial and Asian.

– Poverty — 82 percent qualify for free or reduced priced meals.

– Attendance rate — 95 percent.

– Percent passing ISTEP — 49.9 percent.

– Estimated Total Budget (2012) — $533,257,549.

Read the plans

To read the different plans for Indianapolis Public Schools in their entirety, visit:

– The Mind Trust — themindtrust.org.

– Local School Councils plan — tinyurl.com/ LocalSchoolCouncils.

– IPS Strategic Plan — about.ips.k12.in.us (Click on the “General Information” tab, then on “Strategic Plan.”)

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