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.