Since Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee left his position in January, the school board has searched for a replacement across the country. However, some local leaders don’t believe looking beyond IPS headquarters is necessary, let alone beyond Indiana.
“IPS needs an aggressive, innovative leader that displays dedication and long-term tenure to achieve the academic goals set to accomplish higher education success,” Kellie Coleman, director of account management at Travel Leaders Indianapolis, said. “The end result should be a dramatic increase in student enrollment for higher education programs.”
A number of community leaders, including Coleman, believe interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson can and should remove the “interim” from her title. Because of her track record, her collaborative nature, her understanding of IPS and her historic status, these voices in the community believe Johnson should continue leading IPS.
“She has been working to the fullest capacity of her job, and she deserves a chance to show what she can do because so far she’s done a great job,” Dr. Fitzhugh Lyons Sr., pastor of Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, said.
Johnson brings a thorough knowledge of educational systems to the superintendent’s office. She taught a variety of subjects for six years, including social studies, science and English. Afterward, Johnson spent 10 years in administrative positions in Teach for America, KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory and IPS.
Nyree Modisette was in eighth grade at KIPP when Johnson was a school leader there. Assessments placed Modisette at a second grade reading level, as she told Chalkbeat. Johnson and her coworkers tutored Modisette after school, using her favorite books, like those by Judy Blume, as educational tools. Not only did Modisette reach the proper reading level, but she is also currently a senior at Butler University. Johnson plans to attend her graduation this year.
“It was remarkable,” Modisette said in the Chakbeat article. “I will never forget that — how they took that time out to actually help. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for their help.”
At KIPP Johnson excelled as a leader as well as an educator. Roshawn Modisette, Modisette’s mother, worked at KIPP as a special education assistant. She remembered a heated exchange with a parent where she was too afraid to respond and how Johnson helped afterward, according to the Chalkbeat article.
“Aleesia told me, ‘I’m gonna teach you how to use your words,’” said Roshawn. “What she taught me was confidence.”
After KIPP, Johnson began working at IPS, first as an innovation officer and then as the deputy superintendent for academics. As an innovation officer, she became acquainted with IPS’ innovation schools and what they need to thrive.
“I feel like the innovation schools, while not perfect, have been more good than bad,” Barato Britt, executive director of the Leadership and Legacy Academy, said. “I would like to see that continue.”
In addition, Johnson played a major role in bringing KIPP schools and Purdue Polytechnic High School under the IPS banner.
“She has been a critical person to help develop those relationships that made that happen,” Sam Odle, former IPS board member, said. “It’s really bringing in those schools that has put IPS back on a growth track versus declining enrollment.”
During Johnson’s most recent position as interim superintendent, she still makes a point to identify and tackle issues. For example, Councilwoman Maggie Lewis praised Johnson’s dedication to addressing IPS’ graduation rates and third grade reading levels.
“I’ve gotten to know her over the years,” Lewis said. “I’ve been very pleased with her willingness to dive in deeper to the education issues.”
Spirit of collaboration
Johnson’s ability to garner mutual respect with those who disagree would be an important strength as a permanent superintendent. After all, dealing with politics and ideological disagreements is part of the job.
“She’s open to hear ideas from different folks and is willing to try different policies and procedures if it works,” Larry Smith, founder and CEO of LEAF LLC and Recorder contributor, said. “I don’t think that she’s wedded to any particular ideology other than kids are first and we have to serve them in the most effective way possible.”
For example, not everyone embraces innovation schools to the degree of Johnson. The director of IPS’ office of multicultural education, Pat Payne, advocates for the traditional public-school model above the innovation model. However, she still enjoys working with Johnson and praises her support of IPS’ Racial Equity Initiative.
“Under Superintendent Johnson, I know the Racial Equity Initiative would soar, S-O-A-R,” Payne said. “I think all aspects of our district would be strengthened. She’s just so sincere about making IPS the best it can be.”
A Hoosier mindset
Community leaders appreciate how Johnson has what president of Mid-States Minority Carolyn Mosby called “homegrown talent.” Not only was she born and raised in Evansville, but she also worked in Indianapolis for 15 years. Johnson already knows the city and how to interact with it.
“It makes it a lot easier when you know the resources, you know the people, you know the agencies, and you know the places that can be the most supportive to you in your endeavors,” Kenneth Allen, chairman of Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males, said. “Then you don’t have to establish those relationships. You can lean on those relationships.”
Johnson also does not need to get to know IPS. She is already much more familiar with its strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies than candidates from other states.
“Why should we initiate a nationwide search for our next IPS superintendent that we don’t know anything about outside of what their resume purports when we have Ms. Johnson, who is well able to perform the job as she is now already doing and has had the opportunity to see firsthand some of the strategies and transformational efforts of the IPS district,” Dr. Michael Bluitt, president and CEO of the Bluitt One Group, said via email.
A famous first
Johnson is the first African American female to be an IPS superintendent. Seeing an African American woman in a prominent leadership role can inspire girls, especially in a school district that is 46 percent African American.
“Personally, I have a 13-year-old goddaughter, and I think at any turn that she can see a Black female leading is good for her just so that she can know she can do that one day,” Bryan Chatfield, candidate for city-county council said.
Many community leaders also believe that Johnson’s status as the first African American female superintendent will cause to her to be attentive to the needs of minority students. For example, Johnson dedicates monthly meetings to IPS’ Racial Equity Initiative.
“She believes in true racial equity and engagement,” Tanya Bell, president and CEO of Indiana Black Expo said via email. “The district now has an engagement department that will focus on intentional engagement with the community at large. This is huge and is a testament of the type of leader she will be.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
A glimpse of Aleesia Johnson
Aleesia Johnson, the woman
* Married 13 years
* Has three school-aged children, all of whom attend IPS
* Indianapolis resident for nearly 15 years
* Attends Light of the World Christian Church
* Native of Evansville
* Grandfather was a Civil Rights activist in Evansville
* Derives from a strong family of educators
Aleesia Johnson, the professional
*BA in African American Studies and Psychology, Agnes Scott College
*Master of Social Work from University of Michigan
*Master in Teaching, Oakland City University
*Served as Interim Superintendent since December 2018, after serving since 2015 as IPS Innovation Officer and Deputy Superintendent for Academics.
*Led oversight of 18 schools in IPS autonomy cohort and 20 IPS Innovation Network Schools
*Oversaw district efforts to improve equity through transition to student-based budgeting model
*16 years experience in education, including six years as a middle school English teacher and five years as school administrator