Aleesia Johnson

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson delivered the first "State of the District" address Oct. 9 at Shortridge High School. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson delivered the first “State of the District” speech Oct. 9 at Shortridge High School, where she highlighted increased student enrollment and reiterated her priorities that include racial equity and being transparent with families.

Johnson, the first African American woman to lead the state’s largest school district, made racial equity one of the most prominent themes when she was the interim superintendent earlier this year and vying for the permanent job.

About 44% of IPS students in the 2018-19 school year were Black, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. In numerous achievement standards, including recently released ILEARN scores, Black students lag behind their white and Asian peers.

In the 2015-16 school year, Black students in IPS made up well over half of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, despite enrollment being less than 50%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

“IPS is not unique in this regard,” Johnson told the audience. “It holds true for most districts across our state and country, and it should not be so. This is why having a racial equity mindset is a non-negotiable for our district.”

Johnson recognized Dr. Patricia Payne, who leads the district’s Racial Equity Initiative, and Francis W. Parker Montessori School 56 principal Christine Rembert, who couldn’t attend the event because she was at a racial equity conference.

After a steady decline in enrollment for at least the last 15 years, IPS is projecting a second straight year of increased enrollment, up to more than 32,000 this year. The state’s next largest district, Fort Wayne Community Schools, had an enrollment of 29,404 last year, according to the state.

“We will never consent to being viewed as a second-class school district,” Johnson said. “We will never consent to our students being defined as less than the brilliant, resilient and capable young people that they are. We are inferior to no one.”

Those 32,000 students are spread out across multiple school models. IPS operates 48 schools and is partnered with 21 Innovation Network Schools, which have autonomy but are still considered part of IPS in exchange for the district getting to count their enrollment and academic data.

About 25% of IPS students attended innovation schools at the start of this school year.

Once IPS began approving partnerships with innovation schools in 2015, district parents became frustrated with what they felt was a lack of transparency and communication about how the district was changing. It was a major theme in the 2018 general election, when two critics of the district’s direction were elected to the school board.

Johnson emphasized this year’s theme for the district — “Stronger Together” — throughout her speech and highlighted the newly branded Office of Communications and Engagement. The school board also approved the creation of the Family and Community Engagement team, part of the Office of Communications and Engagement, which will work with families and local organizations.

“We have renewed and re-energized our drive to engage families, team members and the community in authentic and collaborative partnerships to improve student outcomes,” Johnson said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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