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Ferebee asks the state board to fire 'lead partners'

George Washington High School.
George Washington High School.
Scott Elliott

Indianapolis Public Schools asked the state Thursday to let it fire outside companies assigned to support three of its troubled high schools.

Like his predecessor Eugene White, new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee argued IPS has its own plan and could do a better job raising test scores at George Washington, Broad Ripple and John Marshall high schools alone.

Indiana State Board of Education members, including some who have long been skeptical of allowing IPS to manage efforts to improve it’s lowest scoring schools on its own, signaled they were receptive to the idea.

“I like the outside vendors but this could allow IPS to grow its talent pool,” board member Dan Elsener said.

Broad Ripple and George Washington were two of seven schools statewide that faced the possibility of state takeover when they reached six straight years of F grades for low test scores in 2011.

Four other IPS school were taken over, severed from district control and turned over to outside companies or non-profit groups to be run independently: Manual, Howe and Arlington high schools along with Donnan Middle School.

But Broad Ripple and George Washington were given a lower level of intervention. Each was assigned an outside “lead partner” organization hired by the state board to provide services and monitoring to support the school’s own turnaround efforts.

In each case, the state board chose to place schools in state takeover or assigned lead partners rather than follow White’s IPS-led proposals for improving the schools.

It was somewhat different when John Marshall hit six years of F in 2012 and faced the danger of state takeover. White unveiled a wide-ranging, and costly, plan to improve not just Marshall but also up to 14 schools that feed students to it.

In that case, White said the district was planning to hire Texas-based Voyager Learning regardless of state’s actions with Marshall.

Under a $4 million contract in 2012, Voyager was hired with district money to work in nine schools with the option to expand the contract to five more schools and ultimately pay Voyager up to $18 million over three years. Instead, IPS cut the contract to just over $600,000 annually last year to save money. The company was to provide teacher training and support to improve math and reading.

White asked a skeptical state board to sign onto his plan by assigning Voyager as Marshall’s lead partner, routing federal support dollars to support the plan and keeping IPS in charge of the turnaround effort. Board members said they were reluctant to let IPS lead the process, but agreed to try the plan.

On its report card last year, Marshall was rated a D and saw a three-point decline in the percentage of students passing high school end-of-course exams, with just 25 percent of students earning a passing score.

The New Teacher Project, a company started by former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Scholastic Achievement Partners are the lead partners that work with Broad Ripple and George Washington.

Broad Ripple has been the biggest lead partner success story, with a 20-point gain in it’s end-of-course exam passing rate to 68 percent and consecutive B grades since 2011. George Washington, meanwhile, has seen its passing rate drop eight points to 33 percent and its grade dropped back to an F in 2013 after reaching a C in 2012.

Ferebee argued that the lead partners was no longer needed because his own plan for improving low-scoring schools is also focused on improving school leadership and beefing up teacher training.

“We’re doing the same work but we’re supporting it through our district,” Ferebee said.

He proposed the state drop its contracts with The New Teacher Project and Scholastic and said he planned to end the district’s contract with Voyager. Instead, he asked the state to redirect more than $800,000 in federal grant money it used to pay the lead partners to IPS to support its turnaround efforts.

It’s part of a wider plan, Ferebee said, to improve the district’s most troubled schools that will include new administrative leaders over magnet schools, East side schools and West side schools. In addition, Ferebee said the district is overhauling its principal selection process to involve more teachers and community members. IPS is already using the process for the 10 principal openings it is aiming to fill, he said.

Board members did not make a decision Wednesday but praised Ferebee’s plan. The could consider making the change as soon as next month.

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