The three finalists vying to become the next superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools made their case June 18 to the school board and community for why they should be selected to lead the state’s largest school district.
Devon Horton, chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky, Aleesia Johnson, interim superintendent of IPS, and Larry Young Jr., assistant superintendent of Elementary Education for Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, had 15 minutes to deliver an opening presentation and then took questions for 45 minutes from the board.
The community had time in the weeks leading up to the public interviews to submit questions. Board President Michael O’Connor said 112 questions were sent in. Topics ranged widely, but the main themes included charter and innovation schools, race equity, communication and funding.
The board plans to announce the next superintendent by the end of the month. The position opened when former superintendent Lewis Ferebee left for the same position with D.C. Public Schools.
Charter and innovation schools
Horton was friendly to the district’s model for charter schools and Innovation Network Schools, which are managed by outside operators, and had ideas about how to improve the system.
He said in his presentation he thinks most of the innovation schools are doing fine, but he doesn’t think restarting a school as an innovation schools is working for the district. Horton, who was hired to his current position in part because of his reputation for turning schools around, said that is where he could step in and make innovation schools stronger.
Citing his past experience in school districts in Chicago and St. Louis, Horton said he would prefer to keep struggling schools under district control and give them additional resources, including financial incentives to retain teachers.
Young said he’s neither pro- nor anti-charter and innovation schools. He said he instead cares about providing “quality choices” for students and finding models of education that work and can be replicated to other schools.
“I’m not stuck on that,” Young said of the debate over charter and innovation schools.
Johnson, who started working for IPS in 2015 as the innovation officer, has been supportive of charter and innovation schools and indicated she wouldn’t deviate from that path, although she added there isn’t just one way to address those schools.
Johnson, who became the first African American woman to lead the district when she took over as interim superintendent, said her many identities have informed the work she’s done in education. With a picture of dead fish floating in a lake on her presentation slide, she pointed out that Black students are typically overrepresented in negative outcomes and underrepresented in positive outcomes.
“That’s not a problem with the students. That’s not a problem with the fish. That’s a problem with the lake,” she said, adding that school systems can act as enablers of systemic racism.
Johnson said she would expand racial equity work to eliminate opportunity gaps and address institutional bias. Johnson said she believes the district can cut its achievement gap in half by 2023.
Young said he collected school and district data in preparation for his interview and noticed students of color and students living in poverty don’t score as well on standardized tests and don’t graduate at the same rates as their peers from a higher socio-economic status.
Like Johnson, Young said the school system is partly to blame for systemic racism and added that the same is true of standardized tests.
Horton also talked about disparities between Black and white students in education outcomes and the opportunities they’re given in schools. He said he would create a racial equity policy for the district. Horton said he would try to replicate a teacher residency program like the one he had in St. Louis to recruit diverse teachers.
As IPS has undergone its transformation to include different school types, critics often point to communication between the district and the community as an issue. Johnson said she and the district as a whole learned about the importance of communication during that time, when she was innovation officer. She said she’s been meeting with parents one-on-one and in groups since she’s been interim superintendent to get feedback.
Horton said improving communication would be one of his goals as superintendent and said he would like principals to go on Facebook Live regularly so they can interact with parents and the rest of the community. Horton also suggested a “state of the district” where school leaders could update the community on their goals for the district and even raise money for scholarships.
Young talked more about internal communication and said he’s learned from giving feedback to teachers who were also getting feedback from other administrators. He said he would create a profile for each teacher and would make their evaluations relative to their years of experience, since he believes it wouldn’t be fair to expect a new teacher to be at the same level as a veteran teacher.
Horton congratulated district leaders for securing millions of dollars more in funding after an operating referendum and capital referendum passed in the November 2018 elections. He said one thing he would consider as superintendent is trying to reduce the size of the district, not necessarily by closing schools but cutting back on the space IPS takes up in the city.
Young touted the success Pike Township schools have had in building up a reserve and rainy-day fund. He said he would create a process to evaluate every program and initiative and cut those that aren’t being utilized or aren’t effective. Young also oversees athletics and wellness from his position with Pike Township schools and said that’s saved the district more than $100,000 in salary and benefits.
Johnson repeatedly emphasized the need to allocate resources equitably throughout the district but said some “hard decisions” might need to be made when it comes to shifting resources between schools as the district goes through a slight uptick in enrollment.
“Our budget is really a reflection of our priorities,” she said.
She said principals should have more autonomy when it comes to how they use resources for their schools, since one school’s needs may not perfectly align with another.
Go to indianapolisrecorder.com to learn more about the finalists.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.