Indianapolis Public Schools appointed Aleesia Johnson as its superintendent in June, making her the first Black woman to lead the state’s largest school district.
Johnson, who began working for IPS in 2015 as the innovation officer, became interim superintendent after Lewis Ferebee left to lead D.C. Public Schools. She is the district’s 33rd superintendent.
“I am thrilled, honored, humbled to be the next superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools,” Johnson said when the district made the announcement. “I’ve grown to have such deep love for this district over the last four years.”
Johnson was one of three finalists for the position and participated in a public interview session where she took questions from the school board.
During her opening remarks, Johnson displayed a picture of dead fish floating in a lake and said, rather than blaming the fish, it would be appropriate instead to try to find out what’s wrong with the lake. She drew an analogy to Black students.
“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.
Perhaps the most prominent theme of Johnson’s interview process and her first months on the job has been racial equality. She’s said her goal is to cut the achievement gap in half by 2023.
The problems that plague Black students across the country are the same ones that Black IPS students deal with.
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 said at the first “State of the District” speech in October. “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.”
The most obvious advantage to choosing Johnson instead of someone from outside of the district is her experience meant there would be a smooth transition and minimal disruption to the direction IPS was already going.
School board president Michael O’Connor said part of the reason the board chose Johnson is because her vision was the one most closely aligned with the board’s.
That’s significant because the board now has more skeptics of the district’s path toward adding more innovation schools, which are run by outside charter or nonprofit groups but get counted toward the district’s enrollment and academic performance data.
About a quarter of IPS students attend innovation schools.
“The hope is that we continue in our innovation work to be responsive to what we’re seeing happening in the district,” Johnson said she after the board announced she was hired.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.