Indy has beat bad raps before. It transformed its image from a dirty, backwater, Rust Belt Gotham to a city with a future, with culture, with vision. Citizens are cleaning the sewage from the rivers; they're recycling and biking more.
The narrative loses its urban renaissance thread, however, when it turns to Indianapolis Public Schools. The schools, according to one common local line of opinion, are broken. Indiana's employers fret over the state's anemic pipeline of passionate and capable math and science students. And IPS, with six of its schools deemed "failing" by the Indiana Department of Education is held up by leaders as a glaring example of what Hoosiers do not want their educational system to be.
When The Mind Trust, a local nonprofit incubator of educational leadership and innovation, released its "Creating Opportunity Schools" report in December 2011, it outlined in great detail its core position that IPS "is broken — with catastrophic results for students" and would take radical restructuring to achieve needed and lasting change.
"We've taken a piecemeal approach to reform to public education for decades," David Harris, The Mind Trust's chief executive and founder, said in an April interview.
"If we're going to get the kind of results we want and believe are possible, we need to do a variety of things at the same time — we can't just fix reading in middle school or preschool. We need a comprehensive set of reforms that need to happen together that support and strengthen each other."
The nature of the radical reforms proposed are, in some ways, too radical and, in others, not radical enough for local critics of The Mind Trust and its "Opportunity Schools" plan.
"The more I look and read about what's going on, I feel the past 30 years of educational research has been ignored," said Alex Sage, a "concerned community member." He and his father, Michael Sage, a local psychotherapist, attended a recent Innovate Indy summit that engaged a group interested in strengthening local education.
Sage is among a group of people interested in education who find many aspects of The Mind Trust plan they agree with, yet are frustrated by the sense that standardized test scores will remain the way success for students — and even teachers and schools — is defined. The group has other concerns, as well. They felt it imperative that Indy embrace a deeper discussion of the implications of the plan. They agreed to join in an informal roundtable discussion at NUVO to provide their assessments of Indianapolis' educational landscape in relation to the framework set up by The Mind Trust.
This group included Sage; John Harris Loflin of the Southeast Education Task Force and the Black & Latino Policy Institute, who is an IPS grad and retired IPS teacher; Master Artist Tony Artis, who is a teaching artist specializing in African percussion and African history through percussion; and IPS grad Carole Craig, who joined the Greater Indianapolis NAACP following her 2005 retirement from IPS after performing the duties of teacher, counselor, dean, principal and central office staffer.
Inspired by the passion for quality local education demonstrated by the group that visited NUVO in March, and prodded further by David Harris' desire to drive discussion that leads to action on reform of IPS, NUVO News committed to providing a platform for further public discussion by posting a rotating forum of local perspectives from within IPS and Indiana education overall at NUVO.net/news. Find new "Perspectives in Education" postings each Thursday by noon, beginning June 14. [Direct submissions firstname.lastname@example.org.]
After speaking to Harris and the roundtable, the mantle fell upon NUVO news to actually read the 155-page, well-footnoted "Opportunity Schools" report. With this substantial but stimulating homework complete, the task turned to collecting more feedback from local education leaders, students and a dramatic, unforgettable interaction with an impassioned parent. This sets the table for an introduction to the ongoing dialogue about the educational reform in Indianapolis.
This discussion has economic, public safety and quality-of-life implications for people of all ages and classes in Indy — this is about the future.
Defining a "broken" IPS
Before offering its solutions, The Mind Trust's "Opportunity Schools" report details its position that IPS is broken. Chapter One's subheads offer a simple outline:
"Too few students meet state standards." Evidence offered includes this stat: "Only 45 percent of IPS students across all tested grades met basic state standards in both math and English É in 2011 on Indiana's ISTEP+ compared to 72 percent of students statewide and 65 percent in Marion County." And, the report noted, "Gaps widen in higher grades."
"Too few students graduate from high school." Evidence offered: "A 2009 report from America's Promise Alliance, a national advocacy and research organization headed by retired General Colin Powell, showed IPS had the lowest graduation rate among central city school districts in the nation's largest 50 cities."
"Few failing schools improve." Evidence, as distilled by Harris: "95 (Indiana) schools were at risk of being taken over in 2005. By 2011, only seven remained on the list. Six of the seven were in IPS."
"Failure to meet the needs of parents and families." Evidence offered: "As the number of students enrolled in IPS has declined, the proportion of disadvantaged students in IPS has increased." Free lunch accounts up to 81 percent in 2011 from 77 percent in 2002. Racial and ethic minority population equals 77 percent, up from 63 percent a decade earlier. Limited English proficiency at 11 percent in '11, from 6 percent in '02. "Given the strong influence of poverty on student academic achievement, these changes have increased the challenge of improving student outcomes in IPS," the report read, promising a plan to cultivate schools capable of erasing the achievement gap associated with inner city schools where high levels of poverty and greater racial diversity exist.
"Failure to focus resources effectively." Evidence offered: "Per-pupil spending in IPS has grown 61 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1988. ... IPS has almost four times as many administrators per 1,000 students than the average in other districts in Marion County, and it has nearly twice as many as the average district in the state." The report noted an IPS plan to trim its administrative load. Current estimates peg that number of planned cuts at about 15.
Radical transition, radical enough?
Enabling successful schools (according to standards set between the school and the district, probably including but not limited to test scores) to have greater autonomy over core elements such as hiring, curriculum and financial resources will help improve Indy's educational outlook, the report suggested.
"The conditions we outline — namely school level autonomy — will attract the caliber of talent needed to transform schools," Harris said. "We do not think autonomy is a good in and of itself. If a team of poor school leaders got autonomy the results would not be good."
The plan suggests that greater authority and financial resources would enable schools to possibly pay teachers more among other things, which would help stem the exodus of younger teachers to better-paying jobs in the suburbs.
It identified $188 million that could be siphoned away from the IPS central office and directed to what it calls "Opportunity Schools" —an estimated $12,000 per year upon completion of a six-to-eight-year transition period, up from $6,000 today. Public charters receive about $7,000 now, but do not receive the additional support provided to districts for transportation and special education. Earlier in the transition period, the report figured "Opportunity Schools" could see about $9,000 per student.
"Failing schools" would be replaced with "Opportunity Schools," which are conceived as "excellent schools" with autonomy from IPS central office to hire and fire, develop curriculum and manage their budgets. They can be traditional IPS schools, public charter schools or magnet schools, they just have to prove their ability to demonstrate student achievement. Once the transition is complete, the plan envisions 100 percent of IPS students in Opportunity Schools.
The plan frees more money for schools, in a nutshell, by decentralizing many central office functions and shifting the responsibility for those functions to individual schools. Schools may choose to contract with IPS for the services or turn to the private sector or another solution. The plan details which funds, restricted and unrestricted both, could be shifted to achieve its plan. It also calls for a full audit of current IPS finances.
In addition to sending more money to the schools, $14 million per year is shifted from the central office to fund prekindergarten for all IPS 4-year olds.
Teacher empowerment is also a core theme of the report, which calls for school incubator and talent development funds of up to $10 million during the transition — "an unprecedented investment nationally" —to help national and local firms underwrite the start-up plans of new "Opportunity School" models and bolster local leadership development capable of creating and maintaining "Opportunity Schools." Most of that money (about $7.5 million in transition and $2 million afterward) would fund IPS-distributed grants of $250,000 to $750,000 for "carefully selected teams to plan and open new schools within IPS."
The "key premise is to attract top-notch teachers," the report said.
Perhaps its most controversial elements involve the potential for increased public funding of charter schools, all of which hold nonprofit status, but some of which are operated by for-profit management franchises, and a proposal to transfer authority over the IPS district from an elected school board to a board appointed by the city's mayor and city-county council.
The plan also suggests that, to accomplish swift and deep reform akin to The Mind Trust's outlined plan, the Indiana General Assembly might want to consider passing a law that enables the state to take over "failing" districts much like it now has the authority to replace the leadership at "failing" schools.
"We are not big and we're not coming in to take over anything," Harris said of The Mind Trust, noting it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which forbids lobbying.
Mostly the plan builds on work the nonprofit has already been doing to develop what Harris said is the nation's first incubator for educational entrepreneurs and to invest in programs that bring more teachers and educational leaders to Indianapolis.
The Mind Trust has raised $27 million, mostly through donations from charitable foundations plus $2 million for charter incubation from the city and, Harris noted, "two earmarks supported by Sen. Lugar and both congresspeople Carson" to support its work since 2006. He noted its Venture Fund is responsible for bringing five of "the best established entrepreneurial organizations" to Indy: Teach for America; The New Teacher Project, College Summit, Diploma Plus and Stand for Children.
The trust's Education Entrepreneur Fellowship has granted seven project grants of about $250,000 each to help people design, build and launch new local educational ventures, inspiring proposals from more than 48 states and 31 countries, Harris said. These projects include efforts to offer greater educational support to foster children, bolster summer education offerings and increase teacher retention. The nonprofit also launched a charter school incubator last year to foster the development of high-end programs, aiming to seed "some of the nation's best charter schools in Indianapolis."
Moving forward, The Mind Trust will take the $18 million it raised through its "Grow What Works" campaign to support its Venture Fund entities and the fellowship initiatives that are demonstrating the greatest impact in the city.
"One of the things that's really surprised us (after publishing the "Opportunity Schools" report) is the number of people who feel we are some company coming in to take over IPS," Harris said. "We are not a company, we're a nonprofit, and we are not big and we're not coming in to take over anything.
"These are our ideas of what we think could be best way to drive the district forward. A lot of people came to the conclusion that putting forward a plan like this could spark the debate that we need as a community to really drive things forward."
Critics counter that if success continues to be defined by students' ability to take standardized tests, true educational advancement — for all students — is impossible. In short, they argue that the plan accomplishes massive changes in the school system's structure, but fails to change its heart.
Distilling critics' fears to the common denominator, one finds an overarching concern that the current discussion about IPS reform will center on shifting control of money and power without genuine awareness of what techniques could best shape IPS students into life-long learners capable of achieving success on a broader plane than that defined by standardized test scores.
Part of the issue is about money, of course.
"It's basically a business plan for putting together a school system based on charters," Sage said.
Indeed, visitors to the website of Public Impact, the North Carolina-based "education policy and management consulting firm" that The Mind Trust hired to prepare the report, will see similar language to that employed in the "Opportunity Schools" report. A featured section on national education policy reform promotes "building an opportunity culture" and "extending the reach of excellent teachers," familiar themes to readers of The Mind Trust's report.
Still, David Harris is adamant that, while the plan is supportive of charter expansion, it affords local teachers and innovators equal opportunity to propose and establish Opportunity Schools whether they opt for charter, magnet or traditional district-style organization.
While critics worry about how money relates to school reform and the entities attracted to participating, they also highlight concerns about democracy and diversity.
"They never talk about what is a great school or what are we trying to do here in America anyway," the NAACP's Craig said during the roundtable.
Alex Sage: "What is the purpose of public education?"
Carole Craig: "That's not dealt with here."
Earlier, Loflin said that after witnessing protests about the privatization of schools in the U.K. and hearing of them in South America, he was "automatically distrustful" when The Mind Trust plan came out.
John Harris Loflin: "It seemed like (The Mind Trust plan) was a way of establishing a beachhead for people to come in and make a lot of money — and really not a lot to do with children, per se, because of what it was proposing in regard to charters coming in and taking over if public schools weren't able to make the grade according to test scores.
"Bottom line, I think the issue is: What are schools for? What does it mean to be educated? What does democracy require of schools? And the realization, at least from my point of view, that testing is political concept, it's not educational concept. Normalcy — the social-political construct concerning the state of being "normal" with respect to the body, intelligence, race, or gender — is a eugenics concept, like special ed. I think special ed is nothing but a political concept.
Anthony Artis: "The high-stakes testing, it's got teachers ... the students stressed out. It's culturally biased."
John Harris Loflin: "The whole idea of this school reform is based on testing. ... If you look at the history of standardized tests all the way back to the '20s, and all these tests that reinforce normalcy ... it's based on eugenics. It's reinforcing European, white, middle-class epistemologies. In fact, if I were black, and I did well in school, it could be construed that I'm actually supporting a system that discredits my African-American epistemologies — our way or knowing, our way of determining what the truth is, our idea of the nature of things. ... It's not the cultural capital of the status quo, which we here all have acquired."
Carole Craig: "That's why cultural competency is so important; knowledge of the culture, its history, if you're teaching in a culture that's not reflective of your own. That law that went into place at 2004 and no one's monitoring it ... .
"What's been lost is the creativity and critical thinking. I came through all-black schools, K-12, all the staff, the teachers were black. We were taught not only high performance academically, we were taught critical thinking. Now children aren't taught that because of the narrow focus on standardized testing.
"We're wondering why our community is so silent. Well, it's worked ... now the community has no voice, and they take on the victim."
Anthony Artis: "You've wiped out creativity because arts programs are the first to be cut. Now we've got STEM: science, technology English and math. As artists, we say, 'Make it STEAM — put the arts in — you need that creative thinking.'"
Carole Craig: "I saw things go down while I was in the system. ... Arts relegated to every other week, home ec and industrial education, went out ... ."
Alex Sage: "... in spite of research saying that those programs improve outcomes."
The group also voiced concerns about the proposal for mayoral control.
Carole Craig: "(Mayoral control) truly disempowers the urban whereas the other districts would have a voice in their elected boards. You're reducing power in the urban core by taking their voice away, which is you're taking their vote away."
If township schools kept elected boards while IPS moved to mayoral control, that would crystallize the sense of inequality, roundtable members said.
In response to these concerns, David Harris responded that, while he is open to different ideas about governance, that evidence suggests that districts under mayoral control perform better and are more accountable to voters by giving them a single line at the voting booth by which to express displeasure over educational issues.
"In this city, there are 63 elected school board members across 11 school districts," he said. "Does anyone think that's an accountable system? This is not picking on IPS. It's not something that's punitive, it's about saying 'This is a positive vision.'"
He added that the plan called for local advisory committees made up of neighborhood leaders to help encourage and monitor the school.
Regarding concerns about testing, he added, "They should love this plan, frankly, because the schools would have the ability to design their accountability systems, flexibly. [We can't change the state requirements] but you could say as a school we'll judge you on a variety of metrics and report that to the community so that (it) can evaluate whether a school is successful."
Still, he added, "We do as a state have state standards, things we believe it's important that kids should understand at different levels. And now there's big discussion about common national standards. We think there's a lot of value in having common national standards so we can really compare states. Are they perfect? I'm sure they're not."
Harris also offered his observation that "when you go to schools that have excellent test scores, they're not teaching to the test."
Finally, he added, "When people say we're trying to privatize education, I really don't understand that. They are all public schools. We're just saying other people can be involved than just the people in the central office."
Segregation via special ed/zero-tolerance
Any productive discussion of educational transformation must address the ways in which schools keep kids off the books, so to speak, who don't fit the mold of a successful student as defined by school authorities. Roundtable members had plenty to say on this subject, much of it boiled down to concern that data is not readily available on alternative schools or disciplinary programs.
John Harris Loflin: " I have a degree in alternative education. IPS instituted 21 alternative programs in 2005. They are hidden. You can't even find data. We don't know if these are places to hide certain students who will bring IPS test score averages down, graduation rates down, attendance rates down. ... These schools lie in the underbelly of the system. ..."
Alex Sage: "... that doesn't get talked about."
Anthony Artis: "Then there's the question of the school to prison pipeline ... and how corporations are setting that up."
Alex Sage: "That's ACLU's platform for the year is the 'school-to-prison' pipe-line."
Anthony Artis: "My son had a heck of time at Arsenal Technical. He got in trouble at school and they put him in an alternative program — like a dumping ground for the undesirables. That really turned him around (for the worse). It was like sending him to prison."
Community concern over how alternative education tracks and special education classes relate to "the school-to-prison pipeline" is not limited to roundtable members. Separately and independently from the NUVO education roundtable, local parent Brenda Williams contacted the news desk to report her long-term distress with the structure of the state's special-education system.
After making an appointment, Williams visited the newsroom with a suitcase in tow containing binder upon binder detailing how several schools throughout Indiana, from New Albany to Pike Township, kept trying to steer her hard-of-hearing son into psychological testing and special education instead of providing the extra reading tutoring he needed. The more she pushed against and questioned the system, the more various school districts demonstrated retaliatory behaviors, she said.
She laid out a paper trail of strong evidence culminating in discovery that a local school district forged her permission to administer psychological testing. Just a few
days later, she said, her 11-year-old son was taken from her custody. He was placed for four days in the local juvenile corrections facility, accused of raping a girl on the school bus, despite the alleged act somehow escaping the attention of the bus driver and a bus monitor. The case never went to court. But, she said, the experiences her son endured scarred him forever.
The detailed story of her son, who is now grown and living in another state, must be saved for a different day, but the myriad questions that even the synopsis raises about accountability over federal special education and disability services funds is important to keep front and center during the current reform conversation.
"I do believe there are human rights violations that are going on," Williams said. "People know about it."
Among her several pounds of paperwork, Williams fishes out a column by RiShawn Biddle in the March 30, 2007, edition of The Indianapolis Star, entitled "Putting males into the education ghetto." It outlined several statistics across several townships suggesting that males, especially black males, were being labeled as emotionally disturbed and learning disabled at rates far greater than their proportionate population would suggest.
"Black and White males made up just 45 percent of Indianapolis Public School's overall enrollment in the 2005 school year, yet they account for 58 percent of students diagnosed as mentally retarded, 80 percent of the students diagnosed as mentally disturbed and 64 percent of the students diagnosed with a "specific learning disability," one section read.
A comment posted at the column's end continues to haunt Williams to this day and it underscores some of the roundtable's most salient concerns.
"Uncovering the underlying motives and deconstructing educational rationale, economics and social/educational politics of human intelligence perpetuated by our very public schools would be too much," a portion of the comment read. "The topic is too dangerous, too political, and its roots are too deep in the history of our country, state and Indianapolis Public Schools. You can't face the truth because if it were known, the house of cards that legitimizes local public education would collapse ... and we can't have that ... even if it means we have to sacrifice our youth on the alter of special education."
Williams said she has encountered other families in similar predicaments, people who suffered retaliation for filing state and federal complaints against schools.
"If this has happened to me, how many other parents has it happened to?" Williams asked. "I was trying to petition parents to say 'let's challenge the system' and it's very hard to crack here in Indiana. People are very complacent."
Backing a cooperative approach
The "Opportunity Schools" plan does address some aspects of special education. It recognizes the significant challenges that now exist in special education and also highlights an area that the proposed redesigned district will still be dependent on the IPS central office.
"The gap between disabled and nondisabled students in IPS was larger than the district's achievement gap between poor and more affluent students and the gap between black and white students," the report noted.
IPS serves students with disabilities through a Single School Corporation, while most of the rest of the state handles such services through cooperative efforts.
"Statewide, SSC students are identified with more severe disabilities, are more likely to be placed in self-contained settings, and have higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates than students educated in non-SSC districts," the report said.
Even as it advocated more inclusiveness for students with disabilities, the report also noted that "once most schools have become Opportunity Schools, IPS may continue to operate a small number of schools and provide special education on those campuses."
It concluded that IPS must continually monitor "qualitative and quantitative data to prove students with disabilities are achieving and that schools are complying with federal, state and local education regulations.
Establishing community standards
"We think all kids — no matter what their backgrounds, no matter how economically challenged, no matter what their family circumstances — all kids can excel if given the right support and conditions," Harris said. "That needs to be the goal we strive for every day. And when we see less than half the kids are graduating without a waiver (and) the district is almost doubled the number of waivers issued in the last few years, less than half the kids are proficient on the state standardized exams ... we need to do much better than we are doing.
"We think there are ways the district can be redesigned that can produce substantially better results. But we're very interested in sparking a conversation ... we're hopeful that, if we have robust conversation, what emerges from that will be an even better plan than what we produced.
"That is not to say we don't believe strongly in our plan."