Dr. Eugene White takes charge

Dr. Eugene White has been a pioneering force in Indiana's educational landscape for over 30 years. After remarkable successes in Ft. Wayne Community Schools and, most recently, nearly 11 years as superintendent of Washington Township Schools, White prepares for his most difficult challenge to date: inheriting the helm at IPS. As the new leader of a district whose high schools lose two-thirds of their enrolled freshman before graduation, this 2002 Indiana Superintendent of the Year realizes his work is cut out for him. Yet, if you've ever sat down with White, you have no trouble believing that if anyone can rescue IPS from absolute mediocrity, it's him. Recently, he shared his thoughts on his vision for the future of IPS and the educational revolution that will transform five IPS high schools into 21 "small" schools.

NUVO: How would you best articulate your vision for IPS?

Dr. White: My primary vision for IPS is that in five years, we will be if not the best, one of the best urban school districts in the country.

NUVO: What are your thoughts on IPS and its upcoming high school transformation to a small school model?

Dr. White: I've dealt with large schools. I was a principal at North Central High School that had 3,500 students and was successfully involved with large schools for years. I believe that large schools can provide more resources if you can control interpersonal relations and you have a program that can keep kids in schools. However, IPS had another situation. The board members here over the years have seen the high schools just deteriorate to a point that the graduation rates are too low, the dropout numbers are too high, the overall academic performance is not as high as it should be. So, the board really felt that it was time for a change. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided an opportunity for our staff to be trained in this model and for us to have this kind of initiative. Indianapolis is unique because it's the only city that has placed all of its high schools in this model. Normally, people pilot this type of conversion with one high school, but we are doing all five of them. We have immersed ourselves into this process and I'm encouraged by what I see.

My primary concern is that we set up a system of accountability, and we have, to measure student success. Just being "small" is not a magical silver bullet. You have to have a program that's built on effective instruction, effective supervision and evaluation and there's no doubt this gives us a greater opportunity for teachers to engage students and students to engage teachers. The small school model does restrict choice to some degree, but I have no problem with that. When you're performing at the level that IPS is currently, choice needs to be limited to maintain student retention and engagement. I, along with my associate superintendent, Dr. Willie Giles, have been working very hard to make sure that the students and faculty are ready.

NUVO: The transformation itself requires an enormous amount of community involvement, especially parental involvement. What strategies is IPS looking at to try and get parents involved or more involved than they already are?

Dr. White: That particular question is a great one. At the elementary level and middle school level we have parental liaisons. We currently don't have the funding to put them in each of the high schools yet. But we're looking for funding to achieve that soon. The way these schools are set up, the administration of each school is going to have to create partnerships with different agencies and corporations in Marion County. It promises to create a communal synergy around these schools. They're going to bring in business people and patrons and others who will see that IPS students are very bright and that this small school program is very good.

NUVO: What role can businesses play in this transformation?

Dr. White: These schools are broken into themes: Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Wellness, Arts and Communication, etc. I think what businesses will find is that the small school model provides a way for them to really connect with the school's mission and correlate the school's goals with their own business or activity. We would hope that business organizations and others would want to get involved with these young people. Small schools need to have internships and other kinds of connections to evolve from their relationships with the community. Eventually, we would like for each school to have community partners and advisory councils. We hope that community organizations will be able to connect to small schools in a much more focused and centralized manner to help these students become a part of the broader community.

NUVO: Is accountability at the forefront of this transformation?

Dr. White: It has to be. I don't think you're going to improve instruction unless there is someone making sure that it happens. The ultimate goal is to improve the educational performance of our high school students. If we do that then we are going to have a higher quality of graduate. And that's going to result in higher and more numerous opportunities for them. In order for that to happen, you have to have people in charge of getting things done. So the campus administrator is in charge of the whole campus, but the academic deans are responsible for evaluating and supervising the teachers. Teaching is where the rubber meets the road. If you don't do a good job of teaching, this other stuff really doesn't matter. We're going to have to do everything we can. By next year, each of these schools will have two new programs. At least one AVID program (for students who are the first in their family to go to college) and an IB program (International Baccalaureate) so that more of these students are prepared to go on to college. Also, we need to look at more vocational and technical options for some of the students in these schools. I think the next two or three years will be very exciting for all of us.

NUVO: Assessment is the buzzword surrounding public education. Given the current administration's No Child Left Behind initiative, are there qualitative and quantitative assessments in place currently for this program and is there data to demonstrate the success of similar transformations across the country?

Dr. White: The assessments are basically the criterion reference and the norm reference. ISTEP Plus is a criterion reference test and it deals with how the district is meeting the state standards. Indiana has some of the highest standards in language arts, science and math in the country. The norm reference tests like the ACT or SAT reflect a normative kind of knowledge level that goes beyond state standards. Right now these tests give us a picture of how our students compare with students across the country. There's also the NAEP (National Association of Educational Progress) test. Those are all very important tests with which we will continue to comply. But the more important tests are the teacher-made tests. They really assess what students are learning based on what is taught. The CORE-40 also consists of criterion reference tests based on a suggested preparatory curriculum and we want to expand the number of students taking those courses as well.

IPS is the first district of its size and kind to transform all of its high schools in this way. Unfortunately, there is no data to show district-wide improvements in educational performance, but there are individual successes from comparable schools. We are the first to immerse an entire district's secondary schools in this type of transformation.

NUVO: There will be a large role for teachers to play in this transformation. Since faculty will likely be the bottom line for assessment and accountability, are there incentives for teachers in the transformation to a small school model?

Dr. White: The incentives are in the structure of the school and the relative smallness of the student group. I think if we are successful in raising student achievement, the IPS small school model will attract more people. The disincentive could be that our class sizes may be higher than normal. Of course, we will have to work through those issues. But I think there's a natural incentive because this is an exciting new change in high school education. A lot of people will be curious about it. Now whether you keep them or attract them versus losing them will depend on the quality of the program and the kind of support you offer to the faculty who come to and currently work for IPS. I think we will be able to get many people excited about getting involved.

NUVO: What role does race and socio-economic factors play in the current perception of IPS schools and their students as second-rate when compared to the township schools?

Dr. White: I think that it's urban vs. suburban education. There is a dual perception in Marion County. If a child has a gun in Broad Ripple, we think that child is a hoodlum and gang member. If a child has a gun at Park Tudor, we think he's confused and needs counseling. One is perceived as being evil incarnate, the other because of income and other socio-economic indicators is perceived less negatively. That's what we fight as an urban school district. We fight that dual perception that's not always fair to urban kids. The strongest variable is not race but instead socio-economic status. Poverty is a tremendous element. When you have a district where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, it suggests many students have gaps in their experiential base and gaps in their knowledge base. If you're going to be an effective school district you have to fill those gaps. It may take a little longer, teachers working harder, more remediation and tutoring, but we know there are many similar districts around the country that have had success.

Until IPS increases its educational performance and does better in terms of the perception of student behavior, people are going to perpetuate the dual perception of urban vs. suburban education. IPS is not any more racially diverse than Pike Township. But IPS' location and socio-economic makeup fuel a negative perception for many people in Indianapolis. The great thing is, I was one of those poverty-stricken children once upon a time and so were many others who work in IPS. They are committed, like I am, to make sure that IPS students get the best education possible. It means we're going to have to change the way we educate our children.

I don't think IPS has enough rigor or high expectations for these students. Small schools will give us an opportunity to raise expectations and push rigor. We have to have high levels of support from each other and the community. I think these small schools will be better places for all kids to get a good education.

NUVO: Do you think the transformation of IPS will work in concert with Indianapolis' commitment to redevelop urban residential neighborhoods?

Dr. White: I think it goes hand in hand. I don't think the city can maximize its renaissance without IPS changing. If you don't have a good public school district, you can put millions, even billions into the renovation of the city and yet still be compromised because of failing schools. We must be part of the city's larger redevelopment goals.

NUVO: Dr. White, you have a reputation for strong leadership, meeting challenges and not being afraid to comment on the tough issues facing education in the city. In your most frank opinion, what would you say to critics who really don't think this IPS transformation will work?

Dr. White: I think the critics have some basis for their comments. IPS has been going through a low performance cycle for a long time. There have been islands of excellence in IPS. But those islands are often in a sea of mediocrity. Overall, those critics have been able to point to certain failures and say, "See, I knew it wouldn't work." The facts are very simple. We don't have enough money from the state Legislature and we're going to be compromised a great deal. However, we're not going to use that as an excuse. I believe that if the critics are objective and fair, they will welcome this first part of the transformation of IPS into a successful school district. Still, it's going to be overt and challenging. I just want critics to know that a lot of people, including myself, are going to put in a lot of hard work and a lot of their lives over the next few years to make sure that this transformation works. And I believe it will.

The challenges of providing a quality education have fallen squarely upon the shoulders of the Indianapolis Public School District. IPS has sought many remedies in the past to improve educational performance and enhance the district's image among Indianapolis residents, but none of the magnitude of the proposed "small school" model currently taking place at five IPS high schools this year.

The model borrows its name from the decentralization of large campuses into small centers or "schools" that are effectively self-sufficient and give administrators and faculty an opportunity to better engage students and vice-versa. Each school has its own faculty, curriculum, budget and site-based decision-making board that helps distinguish its mission from others and creates an environment of student and faculty autonomy unparalleled by larger school models. With the help of a nearly half-million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IPS is set to embark on the most sweeping educational reform in the district's history.

The student is the focus

Each high school (including Emmerich Manual, Arsenal, Arlington, Northwest and Broad Ripple) will have a new administrative structure consisting of a campus administrator and multiple academic deans. The academic deans will be primarily responsible for the development of faculty, assessment and achieving the educational objectives within the small school. The campus administrator will assume the executive functions normally delegated to the traditional principal, including financial management and the overseeing of day-to-day operations of the entire campus. IPS hopes that this new administrative structure will create more synergy between students, faculty and staff.

Brandon D. Cosby, director of conversion for NESSI (Network of Effective Small Schools in Indianapolis) and senior fellow at the Center of Excellence in Leadership and Learning, which administers the Gates Foundation grant for IPS, sees the small school plan as an opportunity to change teaching methodologies as well as improve student performance. "The focus is on the personalized learning of the student. In essence, IPS is turning the traditional model of secondary education upside-down so that now the student is truly the focus. There is a disconnection between how students are assessed and how students are taught. Given the challenges IPS faces, it needs a revolution in teaching and learning and the small school model does that."

Dr. Willie Giles, associate superintendent of IPS and the chief administrator of IPS Secondary Schools, echoes a similar sentiment. "Small schools are really the future of secondary education. There is a conscious effort to change how we deliver instruction to kids. Many of our teachers (with funding from the Gates grant) have gone through a professional re-training to prepare for this transition. This shift in teaching philosophy will lead to an even more effective faculty and produce IPS students who are better prepared to be successful beyond high school."

Mark Cosand, coordinator at the Center of Excellence in Leadership and Learning, and a former IPS teacher at Northwest High School, believes in small schools' ability to escape the pitfalls of current teaching practices. Cosand expressed a deep concern about the current structure of assessment in secondary education in Indiana and its diminishing effects on teachers. "Right now, many schools are designed with a drill and kill mentality surrounding assessment and standardized tests. But these tests only assess how well a student conforms to the design [of the test] and not what the student actually learns. Small schools allow teachers to be more active in measuring the educational objectives of individual students." The faculties of these "small schools" will have an enormous amount of accountability for a student's academic progress as well as academic freedom to mold the curriculum of each school. IPS hopes this sense of ownership of the school for both faculty and students will lead to higher academic achievement and boost the image of urban public education.

Parents are key

The radical shift in school structure has not been without its critics. Some, including Jeff White, assistant principal at Lawrence Central High School and former IPS instructor, are troubled by the potential increase in class sizes and the lack of quantitative data demonstrating an increase in educational performance from the small school model. "Increased class sizes put an incredible amount of pressure on teachers. Further, there is data that shows that many students' academic performance actually decreased in small school models." The lack of a previous model for a citywide transformation does pose a challenge to gauge potential assessment gains in the adoption of the small school model in IPS.

Moreover, the lack of parental and community involvement in IPS schools is a concern that some believe will hinder the effect of this transformation. Giles, commenting on parental involvement, suggests, "The need for community and parental involvement is very high. Parents must feel they are important in their child's education. Without a commitment from parents and community organizations to help these students, we will not succeed."

Brandon Cosby agrees on the necessity of parental involvement. When asked how far he thought teachers and administrators should be willing to go to get parents involved, he responds, "As far as they have to. I've knocked on student's doors when they failed to show up for school. That's the level of commitment administration and faculty need to have. Schools must ask themselves if they (students) aren't coming to us, then how can we go to them?"

Many educators question the benefit of small schools versus the more popular and less intimidating "learning community" model adopted by many other successful high schools. The major difference (and supporters would argue benefit) lies in the level of autonomy given to the small schools. While learning communities offer a more discipline- or theme-related approach to a particular subject or field, a small school, according to Sylvia DeWitt, academic dean for the Center for Media and Communication at Broad Ripple High, offers a "nucleus of teachers that comprise a breadth of secondary education with the focus on getting to know the student better." Each small school is autonomous and comprised of faculty members across the range of the high school curriculum. With maximum enrollments of 400 students, the small school allows faculty to "micro-manage" the student's educational progress and encourages more intimate communication between faculty and a greater depth of knowledge of the individual student's academic and behavioral progress.

Being the best

Public education has always been a concern for the citizens of Indianapolis. Few districts have had more troubles making the grade in terms of public perception than IPS. However, the small school transformation represents a paradigmatic shift in Indianapolis' public education system. In his inaugural year as IPS superintendent, Dr. Eugene White is excited about the future of IPS. "I believe we can be one of the best urban school districts in the country. This transformation gives our urban students an opportunity to truly get a quality education. Every child deserves that."


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