Schools that work 

Indianapolis Public School 84, located in the architecturally rich Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, creates an oddly distorted mirror image of its unintended sister school Immaculate Heart of Mary, directly across the street. On the north side of 57th Street at Central Avenue stands the Indianapolis Public School formerly known as Joseph J. Bingham, a handsome 1928 brick structure now besieged by construction trailers and chain link fences for its life’s second renovation and expansion. Directly to the south stands IHM, a picturesque Catholic church and school, built of pale Indiana limestone in 1948.

The visual symbolism and multiple ironies of this story, about the spiritual conversion taking place inside the public school to the north, would not be lost on its students. As the 1-and-a-half-year-old satellite branch of IPS’ downtown Center for Inquiry program, School 84 encourages students to write every day, read literature instead of textbooks and analyze their community ceaselessly.

Time to wonder

On a fall morning, 28 seventh-graders are writing and illustrating a two-page book. Teacher Nick Neuriter reminds them that they have 45 minutes until music class, but will have more time to work on their books tomorrow. Milling about the room with its modular desk plan of five-student groups, Neuriter holds up one student’s work as an example, an autobiographical page called “Me, Myself and I.” A boy uses the class computer to look up the “real” name of Spiderman’s nemesis Sandman. A girl goes to the head of the class to get more paper. She remarks, “The thing I hate about writing is when I get a new idea and I have to start all over again.”

The implicit message to CFI students is that there is time to wonder, interact and even start over. There is an unspoken trust that students will learn through their own questioning. Should you suggest, however, that theirs is an untested, touchy-feely teaching, CFI 84 teachers will quickly clarify for you: They adhere to the same state standards that all Indianapolis Public Schools do. CFI students study spelling, learn multiplication, complete required social studies and science units and do comparatively well on the standardized test known as ISTEP.

The Center for Inquiry method grew out of a 1990 IPS-Indiana University program, using literature discussion and writing strategies to reach students who didn’t respond to traditional teaching methods. After the program ended, the teachers continued to work on the model and, in 1993, they opened the Center for Inquiry in the wing of IPS School 92. In 2000, CFI got its own building at School 2 downtown, a K through eight magnet program with 250 students.

As CFI grew, it became a natural to apply to the International Baccalaureate program, whose goal is not to create A-students but to form reflective thinkers and caring global citizens. IB’s cross-disciplinary curriculum weighted in social studies and science, and encompassing two languages, leads students to discover how the world works and where they belong in it. Going beyond the best investigative journalists, they ask not just who, what, where, when and why, but what can I do about it?

Speaking up

“Being part of a community means speaking up,” explains CFI Principal Chris Collier, who taught at and helped develop IPS’ first CFI program. “You learned this, now what do you do with it?” After reading about Hurricane Katrina, one School 2 student went to New Orleans to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. Collier recalls another student walking into her office with a newspaper one day. Holding up the front-page story about an earthquake, he demanded, “What are we going to do?”

The ISTEP bar graph on the Department of Education Web site shows CFI at School 2 as a blue bar continually rising for six years and pulling above the state average, with more than 75 percent of students passing the test. What may please the district as much as rising test scores in these years of falling enrollment is that CFI is popular. School 2’s waiting list peaked at 350 children, a school in itself. It is affectionately referred to as the Center for Irvington, because it draws so many families from that white middle-class enclave on Indy’s Eastside. As a magnet program, drawing students from across the district, School 2 also achieves racial diversity with 52 percent black to 34 percent white students and a small mix of other groups.

In 2005, Superintendent Dr. Eugene White gave CFI the nod to expand and asked Collier to oversee two buildings. Its spin-off site would be Joseph J. Bingham, whose enrollment was in steady decline and whose students arrived mostly in buses. Though Bingham remained surrounded by pricey brick colonials and Tudors, and a stone’s throw from Meridian Street mansions, ’70s desegregation orders, bussing and white flight had taken its toll on the school. Increasing numbers of white families abandoned IPS for the suburbs or private schools, whose ISTEP bar graphs boasted 90 percent and even 100 percent students passing. Immaculate Heart of Mary, with its almost entirely white student population of 400 students, created a vivid contrast to public school life at Bingham, which was down to 200 mostly African-American students in 2005-’06, with a great percentage enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program.

“What can we do about it?” asked neighbors faced with Bingham’s slide into racial and economic segregation. Five years ago, the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association formed an education meeting that met repeatedly with IPS representatives. They wanted School 84 to be a viable option for parents who had the money to choose private schools like Park Tudor and Orchard School. They also wanted to support a public school system that serves thousands of families for whom private schools are not an option. Some families living near School 84 were driving their kids to School 91’s Montessori magnet. Could 84 pull in local families with a magnet?

The cream of the crop

Winston Hunt, an IPS substitute teacher from Broad Ripple, sent his son to 84 and thought the teachers were great. Still, he believed that if the school didn’t remake itself as a K through eight magnet, it would close and re-open as a charter school. “When [the district] came back and said, ‘We’re going to give you CFI,’” Hunt recalls, “I said, ‘Folks, they just handed us the cream of the crop.’”

The community pushed to make the new CFI at 84 a “neighborhood priority” magnet. Like other magnets, School 84 would admit children through a lottery, but families who lived within an approximate one-mile radius would take priority. In 2006-2007, 84’s first year as a CFI, the number of children who walked to school tripled. Still more Northsiders came by bus. By fall of 2007, the word on the street was shifting. Twenty-five former private school families enrolled children at School 84. The ratio of blacks to white was almost 50/50. With fall enrollment at 240 and plans to add eighth grade in 2008, CFI at 84 had its waiting list: 87 students.

“A waiting list creates a different perception,” says Cynnie Halsmer with a cheerful cynicism. The Meridian-Kessler parent sent her children to 84 before and since the changeover to CFI. “Things with a waiting list seem more desirable.”

Parents who care

Until 2007, School 84’s chapter of the Parent Teacher Student Association was run with five or six parents doing much of the work. This fall, when they put out the call for volunteers, 100 parents signed up — representing half of the school’s families. One of the year’s first PTSA meetings filled the small basement cafeteria with 30 parents eager to write newsletters, assist in classrooms and run fund-raisers and after-school activities, like Mathathon and Robotics Club. All but one of the parents were white neighborhood parents.

“I believe in public schools in my heart, so when CFI opened I put two boys there,” explains 84’s PTSA President Laura Cummings of her journey back to IPS. Cummings, a violinist, and her husband, a Rolls Royce engineer, sent their children to School 91 before moving to England for two years. Upon their return, they bought a home in the Butler Tarkington area, but missed School 91’s magnet application deadline. They gave pre-CFI 84 a brief try and found the kindergarten classroom out of control. They sent their eldest boys to nearby St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School for one year, until CFI came to 84.

“CFI succeeds because the tone in the classroom is set by kids from families who know the importance of education,” Cummings says. “I wouldn’t divide it into neighborhood families and non-neighborhood families. Families who understand the importance of education come from different neighborhoods. A magnet gets those families. It draws administrators like Chris Collier and the people that surround them — bright, motivated, intelligent people.”

“Pulling your kids out of private school isn’t done in Meridian-Kessler,” says PTSA Secretary Courtney Bennett of her previous resistance to public education. “When you are Catholic, you go to Catholic school and your kids participate in Catholic sports.” Several years ago, Bennett’s eldest daughter attended pre-CFI 84 while on the waiting list to attend St. Thomas. She felt that Sofia was left too much to her own devices, while the teacher dealt with disciplining other children. The experience confirmed the local mantra: IPS isn’t good enough for our kids.

Years later, a recurring discipline issue at St. Thomas in her second daughter’s kindergarten led Bennett back to School 84. After calling the IPS magnet office, Bennett set her eyes on CFI for Frances, but thought Sofia should stay at St. Thomas. The fourth-grader had other ideas. Displaying the initiative and curiosity that is encouraged at CFI, Sofia researched the inquiry method and proved to her mother that it was a perfect match for her.

“Sofia blossomed at CFI,” Bennett gushes like a true convert. “She’s dyslexic and never felt adequate. CFI embraced her creativity. Teachers read her writing, not her spelling. That meant the world to her.” At CFI, the writing cycle focuses on content and style first, followed by peer editing and then proofreading for spelling and grammar before “publication.” Bennett chose to send Sofia to School 2, because its IB Primary Programme is fully authorized, and send Frances to 84 nearer their home, while the school continued IB training. Bennett now believes that discipline problems can arise anywhere, and she likes the way CFI handles them, by fostering respect between students and teachers. “The kids make the school. They respect it, see it as a community.”

Meeting standards

Nick Neuriter feels he earns the respect of his seventh-graders mostly by being himself and listening to them. On the playground — CFI middle school students still take recess — he asks them what they did over the weekend. In class, he gets them to share their thoughts on school topics. A project on countries around the world starts with a class brainstorming session, generating basic questions like “What is your country’s largest natural resource?” and moving on to more sophisticated questions, like “What portion of the population benefits from this resource?” When projects are completed, Neuriter asks students to evaluate their work. CFI doesn’t give letter grades. “You told me what the best project would look like — is this meeting your standard?” he asks. If it doesn’t, he has them redo the work until it does.

Throughout the building, students get the chance to talk informally during daily community meetings. In Marvin Snow’s fifth/sixth grade (most CFI classes are multiage), teacher and class go over the plan for the day and the week. What work has to be done before choir practice? What books should we bring to our kindergarten reading buddy? In Betsy Walker’s fourth grade, students share more personal news, including the health of a baby brother in utero, two Peyton Manning sightings and as many vomiting incidents.

When Walker turns her students’ thoughts to literature, students take the lead again. After a brief class discussion about the main character in There’s a Boy in the Girls Bathroom, Walker breaks the class into three-person groups to read aloud together. She advises them to use their Writer’s Notebooks to write down questions and new words. The kids disperse and a light chatter fills the room.

At CFI, where teachers team up to write lesson plans by grade level, community is as important to teachers as to students. “It’s not a surprise when teachers walk into each other’s classrooms,” says Walker, a 23-year IPS veteran who left CFI at School 2 to teach near her Northside home. “My K through one book buddies are across the hall. We’ll stop and say hello to the snake.”

Teacher Deb Beam and Vice Principal Dora Brook felt a similar sense of community inside old School 84, even as much of the surrounding neighborhood fell away.
“I taught with the same teachers [for years]. We raised our kids together,” explains Beam of the tight-knit School 84 she knew for 15 years. “I loved it. I didn’t want to leave when it became CFI.” Many of her former peers didn’t want to give up the district reading program, change grade levels or attend the training CFI would require. Beam, however, liked the freedom that inquiry offered and applied to CFI. Today, her brightly decorated second/third grade classroom demonstrates the principles of inquiry on almost every free surface, from blackboards to filing cabinets: “A CFI student is an inquirer, knowledgeable, reflective, caring, communicator, open minded, principled, well balanced, thinker, risk taker.”


“So many things they do at CFI, I have done all along,” says Brook of her 18 years at School 84 before becoming CFI’s vice principal. She enjoys working with Collier, just as she did her former principals. “We always had principals who were open. When we needed support, we had it.” She describes a varied group of former students — now planning to be architects, doctors and artists — that assure her that the old 84 supported them, too.

In the second-floor hallway of School 84, a student-built, table-sized diorama depicts the Meridian-Kessler streets around their school. It’s parent-teacher conference night, and there’s a good turnout that reflects 84’s new racial balance. The crowd includes those families who live too far to walk to school or PTSA meetings, and families from the old 84 who were invited to enroll in CFI before its first magnet lottery. When asked why they choose CFI, they talk about the importance of diversity, creativity and, most of all, a sense of belonging.

Terrie Leavell, who waits to meet her daughter’s teacher, picked School 84 as much for what it used to be as what it is now. When she was a teenager moving in with a foster family in Butler Tarkington, 84 became her younger siblings’ school. “They were so friendly,” says Leavell, remembering the old staff and Dora Brook, in particular. “They knew the family. They knew I was the sister.” Today, that translates to a trust she feels for the CFI community. “They keep working with the kids,” she says. “They won’t let them fall behind.”

School 91

The Montessori option

Visiting Rousseau McClellan School 91 near Broad Ripple is like visiting an alternate universe. So much of what you see is familiar public school fare, from the straight lines of uniformed children to the 1950s floor tile. Yet so much is from another world — the Montessori world where work mats replace desks and the youngest hands run along golden beads more often than pencils. And, at a time when Indianapolis Public Schools’ most troubled schools get the most media attention, IPS School 91 is stepping into the spotlight as a Blue Ribbon School nominee.

Each year, the federal No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon program honors academically superior schools within each state and schools with disadvantaged students that demonstrate dramatic gains in achievement. School 91 could almost fall into both categories. The school’s magnet student population includes 70 percent minority students and 52 percent who receive free or reduced lunches. The overall average of students passing ISTEP language arts and math exams has risen from 56.5 percent to 81.9 percent in seven years. What’s more, School 91 shows superiority in a very important niche group.

“If you look at traditional middle school [test scores], it’s like they fall off of a cliff,” explains one awestruck School 91 dad, Jim Hopkins. “Our scores are among the best in the state.”

Ninety-seven percent of School 91’s seventh-graders passed their 2008 ISTEP math exams, ranking them six out of 462 schools, and 95 percent passed language arts, ranking them third. Ninety-two percent of eighth-graders passed both language arts and math, placing them in the top 3 percent of Indiana schools.

“Our lowest test scores are our third grade and then they go straight up,” explains a jubilant Margaret Higgs, who became principal at School 91 eight years ago. “That’s the trend that you want.”

According to the method developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, children in the primary years rely heavily on the use of manipulatives — beads, skittles and stamps — writing little compared to students in traditional classrooms. Teachers meet children where they are, a very concrete world that doesn’t lend itself to timed written exams. Principal Higgs observes, however, “As they learn to think, they do really well on tests.”

Like IPS’ other two Montessori schools, School 91 is not accredited by the American Montessori Society due to the cost of out-of-state training. They strive to keep the method alive through online training, teacher mentoring and as much local Montessori training as federal grants can afford them. The school’s Montessori Parent-Teacher Association raised $12,000 last year to pay for Montessori materials.

In kindergarten through eighth grade, teachers demonstrate lessons to small groups of children, while their classmates work independently on assignments they have “contracted” to do. Across an open floor plan broken up by short bookshelves, kindergarteners kneel to count beads into a bowl or match word tiles with picture tiles of dogs and houses. In one classroom, first- through third-graders finger an astonishing array of colored beads, beaded chains and pegboards to multiply and divide. In another, fifth- and sixth-graders spread out on the carpet to practice using protractors. In a more traditional looking seventh-/eighth-grade classroom, students sit at their own desks, except for the few clustered around the teacher’s desk for an individualized geometry lesson.

School 91 didn’t have seventh or eighth grade until 1995, when most of its families chose math and science magnet middle schools, waiting to see how the Montessori version would pan out. This year, the test scores of a tight-knit group of 70 middle school students may be proving the success of the whole school.

School 91 parents count success in many different ways. Some talk about how independent class work gives children a strong sense of responsibility. Others praise multi-age classrooms that teach kids to teach. Many parents enjoy how welcome they are at School 91 and others how welcome their graduates are at private high schools like Chatard and Brebeuf. Still more talk about how successful their children feel without grades to identify who is “best.”

After her school was nominated for the Blue Ribbon, Principal Higgs got to work on the required application. She hopes to be part of the Washington, D.C., award ceremony next fall, but mostly, focuses on running her school with a “Montessori heart.”

“You have to be compassionate and calm,” she explains. “You have to be able to lead without having to be the power. You give power to the kids.”

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