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From advocacy to IPS: Deb Black’s hiring signals change

When parents at Indianapolis Public School 93 gathered signatures on the sidewalk and came to school board meetings pushing for change at their school, it wasn’t entirely a coincidence that many of them knew Deb Black.
Working with Stand For Children, a non-profit group that advocates for change in IPS, Black had taught several of them in Stand’s “parent university” how to advocate for their children. When the School 93 parents heard from Black that two IPS teachers had made dramatic gains at other schools through a program they created called Project Restore, they wanted it too.

As they launched a bumpy, but ultimately successful, campaign to convince the school board, Black offered support and advice.

In the not so distant past, such outside agitation by someone from a group with a stated goal of changing IPS might have been viewed as hostile by the district. But in the rapidly changing environment under Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, it got Black noticed, and then hired.

The district’s interest in hiring Black, who started last week, as its first parent involvement coordinator, was sparked when deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand witnessed Black’s enthusiasm for parent engagement firsthand while attending Stand’s parent university graduation ceremony.

Black’s new job is to advocate on behalf of parents to ensure that their concerns “stay at the front of our minds,” Legrand said.

“Everyone talked about how she was able to give them knowledge and that helped them to advocate for their kids,” she said. “We want our parents to be totally involved.”

Black, whose career has spanned the education, social services and consulting sectors, said she applied for a job at the district because she wanted to make an impact on more Indianapolis families. Parent involvement, she believes, paves the way for student success.

“No matter where you are in your educational attainment, you have to have someone along the way who’s motivated you, who’s pushing you,” Black said. “The first teacher you have is in your home. Watching parents become motivated about the possibilities for their children because they are better educated is highly motivational for me.”

Black’s hiring at IPS is one element of what some in the Indiana education policy world see as a marked shift in the school district when it comes to friendliness toward education reform ideas and the advocacy groups that support them. Since he joined the district in September, examples include Ferebee working with Republican legislators and the mayor’s office on a bill to allow partnerships with charter schools and hiring an outside firm to help plan an overhaul of teacher pay.

Stand for Children Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller said he hates to lose Black but is optimistic that it is a sign of more collaboration to come between the two entities.

“It’s a great sign of Dr. Ferebee’s leadership and commitment,” Ohlemiller said. “School improvement can and should be done in a way that involves partnerships. This does not have to be an adversarial process. It shouldn’t be.”

Ferebee took over the district last September from former Superintendent Eugene White, who often resisted calls for the district to be more cooperative with charter schools or groups pushing IPS to move toward more efficiency, autonomy and accountability.

Stand for Children, a national organization that advocates for school choice, high academic standards and other education changes, opened its Indiana chapter in 2012. It had the support of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education non-profit that promotes educational change. White’s relationships with Indianapolis advocacy groups like Stand for Children and The Mind Trust soured as those groups grew more critical of his leadership, citing what they called a bloated central office and too much spending outside the classroom.

Deputy superintendent Legrand, who came to Indianapolis from North Carolina with Ferebee, said the district values its relationships with groups like Stand.

“We have a good relationship,” Legrand said. “I can’t say if it’s improved (compared with past administrations), but for us, they have come to the table being willing partners to help IPS.”

Black’s role at the district will involve directing and coordinating parent involvement activities that happen at each school. She envisions a more robust parent presence throughout the district and unified, clear messaging.

Black said it is important to make it easier and clearer for parents to find ways to get involved in their childrens’ education. Too often, Black said, parents are blamed when children struggle. But she said many times they don’t know how to help.

“I don’t think any parent sets out to not be supportive of their child,” Black said. “We should say, ‘Come on parents, let us help you know what to do.'”

Stand also plans to continue its parent engagement and education services, including the parent university. In that program, parents learn skills like creating a home environment conducive to learning, how to analyze school data, strategies to get more out of parent-teacher conferences and how to mobilize around an issue to create change. It will expand to three new IPS schools this fall.

Ashley Thomas, parent of an incoming IPS first grader, thanked the district at a school board meeting earlier this month for hiring Black. She said it was a signal that district officials were being serious when they thanked the parents involved in advocating for Project Restore at School 93.

“I’m just really glad to hear that she’ll be working with more parents,” Thomas said. “You meant that. You really meant that.”