(Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, sat down with Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott on Monday night at the downtown public library for a one-on-one interview sponsored by WFYI. The full interview will be broadcast online next week but Chalkbeat is publishing some excerpts in the interim. Go here for Ferebee’s comments about middle schools and high schools.)
With more than half of Indianapolis Public Schools rated a D or F, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is looking for ideas for how to overhaul those low performers, and big potential changes are on the table. Among the possible strategies: longer school days or a longer school year at some schools.
Already, Ferebee has backed a bill that passed the legislature in March allowing him to partner with charter schools or other outside groups to try to improve low rated schools. Now the district has partnered with The Mind Trust and Mayor Greg Ballard’s office to create a fellowship to allow educators with smart reform ideas to spend a year developing them into plans that could be used at IPS schools.
In the interview this week, Ferebee said he believes some of IPS’s successful schools have already found ways to essentially add learning hours for their students, sometimes through volunteerism in the schools or community partnerships. For kids who are far behind, he said, that approach may be simply necessary.
Any plan for more hours or school days for teachers could raise concerns from the district’s teachers union. Its leaders have complained recently that Ferebee has not done a good job of communicating with them.
Here is more of what Fererbee had to say about this from the interview, and some responses from the union:
IPS has 10 A rated schools. Several of those are magnet schools but some or typical neighborhood schools. How are they overcoming the odds?
In Indianapolis, our choice schools still are the schools rising to the top as it relates to performance. That’s our charter schools and our magnet schools. I like to believe that our magnet schools are outperforming our charter schools. But our choice environments typically do better.
Where we have pockets of success, and we need more schools rising to the top, would be our neighborhood schools. Our neighborhood schools that are doing really well, typically you’ll find a strong leader, you will find a curriculum or instructional program that is embodied or embraced by the entire staff. You will also find a school that has tremendous wrap around services.
Typically in those schools you’ll see leaders or staff members who have gone out to the community and garnered community support where not only students are receiving additional supports in the school but they’re also receiving those supports from community organizations during the day or outside the school day.
Many of those schools have also mastered the art of extending the school day. You’ll find enrichment activities after school, opportunities for remediation during the day or after school as well. You’ll see in those schools they are moving the needle by providing those additional opportunities for students and families.
Do we need a longer school day or school year to meet the needs of children in IPS?
There’s definitely interest, particularly where we have students who are below grade level two or more years. The research is very clear, especially in literacy. If you are more than two years behind you need at least 90 to 120 minutes more of instruction compared to those students who are on grade level to get on grade level and surpass those students with achievement. What we have to do is find creative ways to ensure students get that time.
Unfortunately students may get that time by losing out on something else. I’d like to see us explore options where students get the arts, they get the physical activity they need and still get that remediation time. Sometimes I think that may require us to have a longer school day for select students or select schools.
The traditional 180 day, six and a half hour model is antiquated. If you look at many of the charter schools in Indianapolis that are getting results, you either see a longer school day or a longer school year. I think that’s something we need to explore for IPS.
How will you manage the process of working with the teachers union?
I think every superintendent and education association in a bargaining situation will have differences of opinion. They have a constituency they need to support and represent and I have to assure that our students get what they need. I think sometimes people don’t realize one is adult interest and another is student interest. But I believe we can find common ground as it relates to ensuring our families and students get what they need.
But we will have to sit down at the table for bargaining to work through issues such as compensation. It’s been a while since we had a significant increase in pay in some form. We also have a situation where it’s costing our employees more for their benefits, which ultimately impacts them at the end of the day as it relates to what they take home. That’s going to be something that we have to look at.
I look forward to having those discussions. As I said to you earlier I’m a teacher at heart. I want to make sure that our teachers are taken care of, as well as other staff members that support our students. I’m hoping that we can preserve reserves in such a way where we are preparing for the future while at the same time address the compensation needs that we have for our employees.
Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the district’s teachers union, addressed questions about the district’s relationship with the union, and the idea of extending the school day or year, after the Innovation School Fellowships were announced. Cornett was perturbed that the union had not been told in advance about the fellowships. She also said Ferebee may need to be brought up to speed on the union’s past flexibility, which included allowing schools to extend the school day provided there was extra pay for teachers.
Here is Cornett’s response to Ferebee:
My problem with (the fellowship proposal) is they keep saying they’re talking to us but we didn’t have a clue what was happening tonight. We’ve done the longer days at John Marshall (High School). We agreed and compensation was offered to the teachers. We don’t have a problem with trying new things at all. We have excellent teachers with excellent ideas. I want to see some IPS teachers, and not just one, in the group (of innovation school fellows).