Indianapolis Public School Board members have praised Earl Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn’s plan to turn around a troubled IPS school using strategies like a longer school day, a blend of teacher-led lessons and online learning and summer school for the most troubled kids.
But tonight the idea failed when it could not muster majority support of the board.
The decision may not stand, as two of the three board members who voted no were defeated in last month’s election. Their replacements, coming on board in January, are expected to be more supportive and could reverse the vote, reviving the proposal.
Phalen and Llewellyn teamed up to win one of three $100,000 innovation awards in a competition funded by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis group that advocates for educational change. Working in cooperation with IPS, the group selected educators with promising ideas for overhauling a troubled IPS school. The winners use the money to spend a year developing their ideas, which are then presented to IPS as options it can use to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores.
After the fellowships were awarded last spring, some board members complained they got less input in the selection process than The Mind Trust promised.
Because board member Michael Brown was absent when the vote occurred, the board deadlocked 3-3, failing to garner the majority of four votes it needed to pass.
Board President Annie Roof, who was defeated last month by former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, said she wouldn’t endorse a process she viewed as flawed from the start.
Instead, she suggested Phalen, who runs a charter school, instead partner with IPS under a new state law designed to encourage such alliances as “innovation schools.” The fellowship, she said, should be focused on new ideas, not importing ideas from charter schools like the Phalen Leadership Academy.
“I did not think from the very beginning that a program that was already in effect, already serving students, fell under the umbrella of what we were searching for in an innovation school,” Roof said. “I have a lot of respect for them and what they have accomplished. If the new board wants to have that, I respect that. I didn’t want it to be under me.”
Roof and board member Gayle Cosby earlier this fall accused The Mind Trust of breaking the rules of its contract with the district in choosing the three $100,000 fellowship winners who are incubating ideas to improve IPS schools. They appeared to work out their differences with the group in September when a new contract was approved to continue the program.
Phalen and Llewellen’s proposal was the first of three innovation school proposals expected to result from the fellowships. The others are expected to present next year.
Roof, Gayle Cosby and Samantha Adair-White voted against Phalen and Llewellen’s proposal, while Caitlin Hannon, Diane Arnold and Sam Odle voted yes. Adair-White and Brown were also defeated in the election by candidates who billed themselves as favoring more cooperation with charter schools.
“The administration has confidence in the Phalen Leadership program as a good partner to do an innovation school,” Arnold said. “A new board will have the opportunity to revisit that issue and possibly revote on that issue.”
Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children, said the move was an act of defiance from an outgoing board with a statement to make about the direction of the district. Stand for Children, a group that advocates for change at IPS, ran its own campaigns during the election supporting the three candidates who eventually won.
“What clearly happened tonight is you have outgoing board members who have made decisions out of spite in the past and that trend continues, which speaks to why three weeks from now there will be new leadership on the board,” Ohlemiller said. “This decision should have been and will be made by the leadership that was voted in five weeks ago.”
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he was disappointed with the board’s vote but was optimistic that IPS would eventually work out an arrangement with the Phalen Leadership Academy. Phalen, a Harvard Law School classmate of President Obama, came to Indianapolis in 2009 as a Mind Trust entrepreneur fellow and invented Summer Advantage, a program that aims to help poor children advance, rather than backslide, over summer break.
“I believe we’ll get there,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to provide this program to one of our schools that has not been performing well. I’m very confident that we’ll have an opportunity to bring the Phalen Leadership Academy into the IPS portfolio.”
Sullivan said she didn’t know the specifics of the Phalen proposal or the debate, but she said the plan should have been voted on by its merits, rather than on concerns about a selection process or its association with The Mind Trust’s program.
“It’s kind of sad,” Sullivan said. “I’m not a big fan of guilt by association in the first place. When you make decisions of that gravity, you should have a stronger rationale for the decision.”
Llewellyn said he was disappointed but that the team would keep working to try to partner with IPS. Phalen told the board that his school’s results speak for themselves.
“Our kindergartners went from 3 percent on track to 99 percent proficient at the end of the year,” Phalen said. “That’s the future we want for our children. That’s the future we believe we can deliver at an innovation school.”