It’s a Saturday morning in late March. Gathered here in this meeting room at the Roberts Park United Methodist Church are a group of middle-aged folks — the kind of people you’ll see at middle school basketball games or class plays of chili suppers. Taken individually there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Cindy Alexander, Micharl Nolan, Maureen Jayne or Dorothea King. But together, this group of parents – along with a growing number of others — are helping to do what a lot of critics have claimed is impossible: They are fixing the Indianapolis Public Schools.
The group sitting in this room represents Parents For Public Education, the grassroots coalition of IPS parents that played an essential role electing three reform candidates to the school board in last year’s election.
It’s tempting on such a quiet Saturday to forget just how bad things had gotten for the city’s schools and, consequently, for its children. In the fall of 1996, IPS was under threat of deep cuts. The superintendent, Esparanza Zendejas, proposed doing away with art, music and physical education programs. Newspaper headlines blared that schools were$15 million in the red.
“There were a number of threats against IPS that had coalesced,” remembers Michael Nolan. “There was The Indianapolis Star, which was accustomed to bashing the school system. There was he mayor [Goldsmith], who… took every opportunity to denigrate the schools. And it had gotten to the point where the school board and Esparanza Zendejas were part of that agenda. We began to see clearly there was a political agenda to do away with our school system.”
Some of the parents were convinced that the system’s lower ISTEP scores were due, in large part, to the impact of chronic instability and strident public criticism of the schools.
“Our elected officials were being told what to do,” observes Maureen Jayne. “We watched carefully and we realized that we needed to tell them what we thought.”
The results of these efforts seemed ambiguous at best. But then, behind closed doors, the board decided to close the Integrated Arts program at Broad Ripple High. There was no public testimony, input or discussion prior to this decision. The parents started networking with one another in earnest. They started doing their own surveys about the state of things in the schools. They developed their own information. “That’s when we really came to be acknowledged b the school board., says Jayne. We did surveys and brought them information they were trying to get.
Closing the Broad Ripple magnet united parents to an unprecedented degree. Then came the closing of School 86 in Meridian Kessler and its sale for use as an international school. :It was one slap in the face after another and meanwhile our children were constantly suffering… they got no support, got no recognition, they got constantly told how terrible they were It was abuse,” says King.