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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

IPS board candidates discuss issues in virtual forum

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Candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board seats participated in a virtual forum recently to discuss innovation schools, special education, school discipline and other topics.

The IPS school board has four seats up for grabs in the November election: District 1, District 2, District 4 and an at-large seat that represents the whole district.

Here’s what candidates said about some of the issues facing IPS and education in general during the forum, hosted by WFYI and Chalkbeat Indiana. There were separate segments for district and at-large candidates, so not every candidate got to answer the same questions. Find the full forum on WFYI’s Facebook page.

Issues that need more priority

Half of the candidates who were asked which issue deserves to be more of a priority for the district chose discipline, citing suspension and expulsion rates that are almost always higher for Black students.

Other options were school closures, policing in schools and special education.

District 1 candidate Will Pritchard, an IPS parent, said the disparities in discipline are part of a larger education gap for students.

“As long as we are using penalties as a way to modify behavior and keeping kids out of school, that will not do anything towards reducing that achievement gap,” he said.

Brandon Randall, a near east side resident also running in District 1, said administrators should look to students who have been suspended or part of the juvenile justice system when trying to rewrite more equitable discipline policies.

Venita Moore, the District 2 incumbent, said the district should be more careful to look at “cultural issues” when it comes to discipline and that suspending or expelling students takes away their future aspirations.

District 2 candidate Daqavise Winston, a former IPS behavior specialist and current secretary at Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township, chose special education. He said the district needs more assistants and support staff.

District 4 candidate Christina Smith, an IPS parent, also chose special education because minority and poor students are often overrepresented.

Diane Arnold, the District 4 incumbent, chose school closures and consolidations, citing her experience as a board member having to make those difficult decisions.

“The last thing that I would ever approve to do would be to close neighborhood schools in poor neighborhoods,” she said.

Innovation schools

Current at-large commissioner Elizabeth Gore reiterated her stance that there should be a moratorium on innovation schools “until we can find out what works and what doesn’t.”

Innovation schools are operated by outside organizations — usually a charter, but not always — that have more freedom than traditional public schools when it comes to curriculum, discipline and staffing. The first innovation agreements came to IPS five years ago.

Kendra McKnight, an at-large candidate and substitute teacher, has had a child in an innovation school and said she had issues with some of the policies. Overall, McKnight said she’s “on the fence” about the model.

Kenneth Allen, an at-large candidate and chairman of the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males, said he’s “all for parents being able to choose what’s best for their young people” but that there needs to be full transparency.

Ellis Noto, an at-large candidate and Army veteran, said he likes that teachers have more flexibility at innovation schools — teachers are hired directly by the outside managers — but that some of the innovation schools “need work.”

Candidates for district seats weren’t asked directly about innovation schools, but Arnold said innovation schools have been a positive for the district.

Standardized testing

Only 14% of IPS students passed the state’s ILEARN exam, and only about 7% of Black students passed both the math and English sections.

Pritchard, Moore and Arnold said a more diverse teaching staff would help students do better, since some studies have shown Black teachers improve outcomes for Black students.

Allen said students would do better if they understood how economics and education connect, and Noto said lowering the teacher turnover rate could also lead to higher test scores.

Almost every candidate said standardized testing is not a good way to measure students or schools.

“When we rely on these tests, it gives a skewed vision and perception for our students on if they’re doing well or not,” Randall said.

Policing in schools

IPS has its own police force with about 40 officers. At-large candidates were asked if the district should review its police force or reduce the number of officers.

None of the candidates were critical of the IPS Police Department. Noto said police should be trauma-informed, and McKnight said she hasn’t seen any negative interactions between students and the district’s police department.

Allen said the district should be more preventive and not reactive.

“I do want to make sure that our staff, our parents and our kids are safe,” he said, “but at the same time, I want to make sure that we’re getting the best bang for our buck.”

Gore said police are an important part of schools and can be a “friendly force” for students.

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

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