Aleesia Johnson is the first African American female to lead Indiana’s largest school district, but she’s quick to point out that she certainly wasn’t the first to be qualified.
Plenty of Black women have come before her. She thinks of icons such as Patricia Payne, who joined Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) in 1962 and now leads the district’s Racial Equity Office. There’s Sojourner Truth, who was bought and sold four times as a slave and delivered the famous “Ain’t I Woman?” speech.
Locally, nationally, globally — Johnson sees the Black women who laid the groundwork for her and others.
Johnson, 42, took over as the head of IPS first in an interim role in December 2018 and then permanently when the school board tapped her for the position in June 2019.
She made it clear from the beginning — including when she participated in a public interview process with two other finalists for the job — that under her leadership, racial equity would go to the forefront for IPS.
During the public interview, Johnson showed a picture of dead fish floating in a lake as she talked about how Black students are often overrepresented in negative outcomes from grades to suspensions.
“That’s not a problem with the students. That’s not a problem with the fish. That’s a problem with the lake,” she told the board.
IPS adopted a racial equity policy in June 2020 that includes an annual disaggregated report on academic performance, attendance and discipline, as well as increasing the diversity of candidates for job openings. The district partnered with the Racial Equity Institute, with the goal of getting all school staff into racial equity training by the 2021-22 school year.
Principals also have monthly conversations about race and racism to help them guide conversations in their schools.
Johnson said she’s still impatient with the district’s progress on racial equity and feels a “deep sense of urgency” to move quicker.
“I have to remind myself that though we’re not close to where we want to be, we’re doing important work,” she said.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted almost everything and, at the same time, reinforced what Johnson and other education officials already knew: Their Black students started at a disadvantage.
“If you were ignoring it before, COVID-19 certainly created a world where you can’t do that,” she said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.