IPS school board

Indianapolis Public Schools Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson responded to a question at a Feb. 7 panel discussion with school board members (l to r) Elizabeth Gore, Taria Slack and Susan Collins. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

The lineup of panelists at an Indianapolis Public Schools discussion Feb. 7 at Little Bethel Mission Baptist Church suggested the possibility of a contentious evening, but host Jamyce Banks, founder of a local consulting firm, laid out the framework for what turned into a friendly conversation about the direction of IPS.

“We’re not here to talk about old policy, old people or the past,” Banks said.

Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson was expected to bear witness to the success of the district’s embrace of charter and Innovation Network Schools, whereas three board members — Susan Collins, Taria Slack and Elizabeth Gore — have been critical of the model. Collins and Slack are new to the board and centered their campaigns last year around the issue.

For all the history, though, there were some notable points of agreement. One question asked about the influence of outside organizations such as The Mind Trust. Collins admitted that although she had been critical of those organizations, since joining the board she’s seen where those relationships have helped IPS with its business practices.

Johnson said it’s practical for a district the size of IPS to “align with” those organizations, but added it doesn’t mean the district is beholden to that influence.

“We’re not in alignment on everything The Mind Trust wants to do,” she said, “and where we’re not, we don’t work together.”

A major theme was the need for more community engagement. The panel discussion was organized by the City League, which hosts a basketball tournament, amid criticism that IPS hasn’t done enough during its push for charter schools to reach out to the community. The school board has already said it will consider community input while searching for a new permanent superintendent (Johnson hasn’t said if she plans to apply), and the district is launching a new office of community engagement. The district will also be sending out a survey next month to staff, students and parents. The survey will include questions about school climate and culture.

The entire evening was not that harmonious, though, especially when it came to charter and Innovation Network Schools. One question asked if IPS needs to consider a moratorium, or pause, on those schools. After initially passing on an answer, Johnson did note that the mayor’s office authorizes charter schools and said it would be beneficial if the different types of schools worked together instead of competing against one another.

Some charge the charter and innovation model is too complex to understand. Some, but not all, innovation schools are charter schools. There are two ways a charter operator can become part of the innovation network: by opening an entirely new school, and by restarting a failing school.

Gore, who has been critical of charter and innovation expansion, has also been consistent in her stance that she doesn’t want upheaval of the current system, fearing the impact it could have on students. She did say the district could reach a point where there are simply too many charter schools, which would hurt the district.

“If we become saturated at some point, and we take away from the public school way of teaching … we need to maybe think about it,” Gore said.

Slack, who has two children in innovation schools, said she wants to see more data before going forward.

“I want to push pause to see if it works,” she said. “We’re not gonna play guinea pigs with our kids.”

Charter school advocates recently championed the results of two studies — one from the Stanford-based group CREDO and another from an education researcher and professor at IUPUI — that showed Indianapolis charter school students scored higher on tests than students in traditional public schools. The CREDO study looked at innovation schools in the district, but findings weren’t statistically significant.

Collins, arguably the biggest charter and innovation critic on the board, said community members who don’t like the district’s direction need to get involved.

“If this community feels there are too many charters … then it’s time for us to speak up to the mayor and the charter board,” she said.

 

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

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