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IPS hopes to arm 'priority school' teachers with tools, optimism

An elementary school teacher at one of Indianapolis Public Schools' priority schools describes the qualities of her favorite teacher during the 2014 Priority Schools Summer Institute.
An elementary school teacher at one of Indianapolis Public Schools' priority schools describes the qualities of her favorite teacher during the 2014 Priority Schools Summer Institute.
Hayleigh Colombo

Shortly after 8 a.m. Monday morning, Toneysha Amos wasted no time trying to energize more than 100 Indianapolis Public School teachers and administrators from the district’s neediest schools who gathered in a crowded middle school cafeteria.

She blasted the sporting event classic “The Hey Song.”

She showed a pep talk from the Internet sensation Kid President, a 10-year-old boy named Robby Novak who wants to change the world.

Slowly but surely the educators, who were at the district’s first summer seminar devoted to improving the district’s most challenging and concerning priority schools, transformed from quiet to lively.

“This morning I need everyone to shake a little loose,” said Amos, IPS’ director of innovation and transformation. “You look a little tense.”

Maybe the teachers’ morning dose of caffeine was kicking in, but Amos said she wouldn’t underestimate what a little positivity and creativity can do for teachers who are weighed down by the disappointment of failing test scores and the pressure to improve.

While two thirds of the district’s schools were rated a D or F last year by the state, 11 IPS schools are on red alert, having been rated an F by the state the past two years and showing little to negative growth in test scores. Teachers and staff from the 11 priority schools and two other low-performing schools were in attendance Monday.

“Let’s make this a transformational journey,” Amos said. “We don’t have to make it such a grueling process. We can laugh. We can enjoy each other to make it through.”

That was the theme of the three-day seminar, which IPS officials said they hoped armed teachers with a positive attitude, new instructional tools and a new network of colleagues to lean on — all for the purpose of turning around the schools.

“We want them to feel energized and excited about going to their school,” said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “It’s such a burden. It’s easy to give them data and say ‘get it done.’ We want you to get it done, but we want to support you throughout the way.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee challenged the teachers and staff to hold themselves and others accountable.

“We’re not going to make any excuses about who we are or who we serve and what’s ahead of us,” Ferebee said. “We only have one time to get this right for students.

“That means you’re prepared. No parking plot planning, no figuring out what you’re doing to do that morning in the car. That means that you’re not going to teach from your seat. That means you’re going to challenge your students to prove their answers. We’re asking you to do this work in a very different way.”

One of the first lessons for the priority school teachers was in mastery learning, an instructional framework that involves incorporating aspects of individual tutoring in large classroom environments to help students who learn at different paces.

Mastery learning is based on the notion that all students can learn if they are in the right environment — something that Amos said should guide teachers in their quest to transform their classrooms.

“It’s not a whim or a quick fix,” Amos said. “It’s an approach that will produce active students who are buying into the learning process.”

In another lesson, IPS teachers learned about fostering grit and resilience in low-income, urban students.

The concept of teaching students to see setbacks and mistakes as a normal and important part of the learning process is becoming popular in education circles these days after University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth won a MacArthur Genius Grant last year for her research, which hypothesizes that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ.

IPS teacher Heather McKinney, who teaches at School 93, led a group of kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers to think about how they might build resilient students in their own classrooms.

She said teaching students how to quickly bounce back from their mistakes could be a key to turning a priority school into a successful school.

“We don’t want to have any excuses,” McKinney said. “We know there are (low-income) schools that have high achievement. There’s an underlying common theme there. That theme is if we teach students to push past the frustration and the failure, we can tap them into success.”

First-year teacher Crystal Bailey, who will soon teach first graders at School 69, said learning from experienced IPS teachers and staff has motivated her. The North side school has earned 3 years of Fs from the state since 2010 and has one of the district’s lowest ISTEP pass rates.

“It has uplifted me, coming into a priority school and knowing that I can help these students,” Bailey said. “It makes me feel wonderful. Our school might be a priority school now, but where will we be in the next two or three years?”

Principal Mike Akers, who oversees Broad Ripple Junior and Senior High School, attended the seminar with his middle school teachers. The junior high school earned an F from the state last year.

He said he appreciated the district’s effort to minimize the stigma of failing schools and instead arm them with extra support and tools.

“It’s another avenue for us to make things better for the kids,” Akers said. “They are our future, and our kids come from an awful lot. I’ve always told my teachers it’s about building relationships. This is just another relationship. The IPS priority schools are family now.”

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