Places We’re Watching: Indianapolis

The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) published a paper on recent developments in Indianapolis. As in Springfield MA, it is inspiring to see the district embrace school autonomy, and empower teachers and leaders to make decisions based on students’ unique needs.

According to PPI, one of the biggest reasons for the shift was the arrival of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. A former school leader himself, Ferebee, was given “carte blanche” as a principal. He says,

“I believe that is why I was successful. Your best teachers are your most innovative and creative teachers, and they know their learners. So when you don’t give them the full opportunity to make informed decisions about what they know, you’re limiting the opportunity for them to be successful.”

Founder and CEO of Indy’s The Mind Trust, David Harris and his team played a key role catalyzing the current environment in Indianapolis, including helping to seed an ecosystem of talent and support organizations, advancing enabling legislation, attracting the right school board to recruit Ferebee, and issuing a report urging that all district schools be treated like charters.

One of the most interesting developments in Indianapolis has been the creation of Innovation Network Schools. These schools are district schools that are exempt from the same laws and regulations as charters and operate outside of union contracts. They are governed by a nonprofit board that hires the principal, sets the budget and pay scale, and chooses the school design. They negotiate arrangements with the district and most get free or reduced-price transportation, utilities, custodial, special education, information technology, meals, and social services.

With support from Ferebee, the Mind Trust incubated one of the first Innovation Network Schools launched in 2015 and has since incubated several more. One of the initial Innovation Network Schools was a persistently failing district school restarted in 2015 by Earl Martin Phalen, a Massachusetts native and proven charter school leader. In the first year of operation, the percent of third graders who passed IREAD (Indiana’s reading test for third graders) at his school doubled from 30-61. Based in part on the school improvement, Phalen has recently taken on a second innovation school.

While it is too early to know if these efforts will be successful, it is exciting to see other cities forge paths that give traditional district schools the same tools and flexibilities that successful charters enjoy, including independently sustained autonomy.