Marshawn Wolley

Marshawn Wolley

In 2013, then-Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth announced the outlines for a countywide strategy to add 30,000 “high-quality” seats in Marion County. It was called the Neighborhood of Educational Opportunity plan.

The broad outlines of the initiative included a grantmaking institution to fund successful models for charters and traditional public schools, talent pipeline development efforts, an outreach campaign for parents to understand their education options and a partnership with academic institutions for evaluation. Between the work of the Mind Trust, Enroll Indy and Teach for America, one sees the implementation partners for this effort. 

The plan was met with quite a bit of pushback from various segments of the community. One perhaps bitter irony was that community advocates were particularly agitated by the idea of using charter schools to replace IPS — a kind of charter school district where there used to be a traditional school district. Today, a slim majority of students inside of IPS boundaries are in charter schools or innovation schools. But, say what you want about the NEO plan — at least it recognized the need to think about education countywide. At least there was a vision for thinking about education beyond the battleground that has become the IPS school district. At least there was something on the table. 

Mayor Hogsett, and thus far Sen. Jim Merritt, haven’t had much to say about K-12 education from a policy perspective. Hogsett has the Indy Achieves program but it’s focus is on post-secondary degree or credential attainment. In the most recent State of the City address, Hogsett failed to mention K-12 education. How is this possible?

Being mayor of the city of Indianapolis means that on day one, any elected mayor of the city of Indianapolis is responsible for a portfolio of charter schools with about 15,000 kids. But beyond the schools, the mayor of Indianapolis is key to addressing issues like achievement gaps because a lot of what impacts student performance happens outside of the school. 

So, what should a mayor do about education given that they do not control township school districts? Well, actually, quite a bit. We can start by revisiting a NEO plan for the county. I’m very concerned about the effectiveness of charter schools to deliver on proficiency — even though we have to concede that the data from the recent CREDO study on Indianapolis schools suggest it does better than traditional public schools in average academic growth. 

But the NEO plan sought to create “high-quality” seats — we don’t need to be locked into charter schools in order to produce the outcomes we all want. For example, providing additional funding to summer programs that prevent learning loss like the 100 Black Men’s Summer Academy might be a function of a countywide strategy to make sure the student was prepared to sit in a “high-quality” seat. The NEO plan would also likely include some effort at funding pre-K. But it might also address food insecurity, trauma informed care, financial literacy for families or even ESL classes for parents and children. 

The mayor of Indianapolis could also offer consolidated food and transportation services as a first step toward thinking about education as a county. The mayor could lead the discussion on what a “high-quality” seat is in Marion County. We need a countywide plan for education in Marion County, but first both candidates have to have the courage to say that the status quo isn’t good enough.

In the meantime, in the absence of a countywide plan for education, it is important that superintendents demonstrate leadership on the racial achievement gap. Newly appointed IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson has demonstrated the kind of leadership our community needs from other area superintendents. She has publicly acknowledged the problem and that there needs to be a serious conversation on race in a recent Chalkbeat interview. It’s kind of hard to beat up someone who is admitting that there is a problem. Area superintendents could learn from this model of leadership. 

Afterall, the community knows it’s a problem and that it will likely take more resources than what districts currently have to address the issue.  

Wouldn’t it be nice and entirely appropriate if area superintendents, in September when the latest I-Learn data is supposed to come out for schools, just held a press conference and spoke to the community plainly about the good and the bad within their data? This is a new test, so it feels almost like a baseline year. So why not create shared accountability between school leadership, parents and even city leadership on this issue?  

Who knows — maybe they will have great news to share, but it would be nice if they committed to speaking to the community now.

Finally, I do think that our community needs to pay attention to the school board races coming up. We can no longer allow those races to be popularity contests in the surrounding townships. Candidates need to discuss issues such as the racial achievement gap. School boards will be key to driving any change our community wants to see on this issue. 

Even as we reevaluate what we do as a community to support students — we need to ask questions of school administrators — even if its why they haven’t asked us to do more on the problem of racial achievement gaps. We are in this together — it’s past time we had a plan.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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