Michael Brown, the most traditionally-minded IPS school member still holding onto his seat, faces a challenger this fall who offers a starkly contrasting world view.
LaNier Echols, his opponent, is strongly connected to the very reforms Brown has resisted, such as IPS partnerships with charter schools. She is a a former Teach for America instructor turned charter school administrator.
Brown is seeking his fifth consecutive term representing District 5 on the North side of Indianapolis and is the last remaining board member who was part of a school board majority that strongly backed former IPS Superintendent Eugene White.
(Hear from the candidates yourself: Chalkbeat and WFYI will host a moderated panel discussion on Oct. 23 with the school board candidates.)
Brown is an active volunteer at Northwest High School, where his children and grandchildren have graduated. The key to helping more inner-city kids graduate and become productive citizens is as simple, he said: keep class sizes small, have good teachers and increase parental involvement.
Brown said he can relate to the struggles IPS students face, as a boy who grew up in a single-parent home and was able to afford college only because he earned a basketball scholarship.
Since the board shifted in 2012 with the election of Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle and Gayle Cosby toward more openness to working with those pushing for change in the district, Brown has been a consistent skeptic. He voted against layoffs designed to shrink the payroll and opposes partnering with charter schools to run IPS schools or start new charter schools in IPS buildings.
Brown said he will continue to resist changes that he doesn’t think will help kids.“There’s too much at risk to start up a bunch of new schools,” Brown said. “You need to look at School 109, School 79, and School 90, the non-magnets in pockets of poverty. Let’s replicate those.”
Echols taught at John Marshall, Gambold Prep and Harshman Middle School during her three years in Teach for America. But the desire to have more control over their learning environment and have more autonomy led her to instead take a job as dean at the Carpe Diem Meridian charter School.
“There are children who are being lost between the cracks and people are labeling them for the wrong reasons,” Echols said. “It’s not fair. You drive down 38th Street and the prettiest thing you see is the funeral home. Yet 20 miles down the road we have Hamilton Southeastern. We as a city need to embrace the idea of doing things differently.”
Echols favors more partnerships with outside groups like The Mind Trust and Stand for Children, two non-profit groups bushing for reform in IPS. She argued that experience in both a charter school and in IPS makes her ideally suited for a seat on the school board.
“Having an experience in education is definitely an advantage to being on the school board,” Echols said. “I have experience on both sides of the coin that everyone seems to be arguing about. I think we need to learn how to work together.”
(Learn more: The six critical questions this IPS school board race will answer.)
IPS’ fifth district is home to several troubled schools — but there are some with encouraging performance.
Six high-poverty elementary schools in the district earned a D or F on the latest state report card, meaning students performed poorly on state tests. The district is also home to Northwest High School, which has been graded an F for the past two years.
There are a few high-performing schools in the district whose students have thrived recently on state accountability tests — like School 79, graded an A by the state, and School 109, graded a B. Gambold Prep High School on the Northwest Side, which hasn’t been around long enough to have a grade from the state, had 80 percent of its students passed state end-of-course exams in 2013.
Crown Hill Neighborhood Association President Carleen Carter, who lives in District 5, said people in her neighborhood are concerned about the future performance of area schools.
“It’s important for young people to realize how important education is at an earlier age,” Carter said. “Other areas are getting that message. It’s going to take time and discipline (to improve). So much has been taken away, and the children are so important to our future.”
The two candidates are running very different campaigns.
Brown is running a grassroots campaign, relying on the support of his longtime relationships with students, parents, teachers, churches and others on the Northwest side. He has little money for traditional political advertising, having only raised $260 so far. But he said he takes Echols’ campaign — and her strong support from those pushing for reform — seriously.
“I take every challenge as a threat,” Brown said. “I’ve been painted a lot of things. I’m pro-IPS. That doesn’t make me anti-anything else. We’ve been reforming in this district for a long time.”
Echols is expected to have far more money for traditional advertising. She has been endorsed by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Stand for Children, organizations that both want to change the way IPS is run and that helped Hannon and Cosby raise more than $50,000 each in 2012. Echols is drawing on those connections, as well as friends in the local school reform community, to build her following.
“The children in Indianapolis need something different,” Echols said. “May the best candidate win.”
The election is on Nov. 4, and the deadline to register to vote is Oct. 6.