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Community leaders recall Amos Brown's big influence on education

Students at Bruce Randolph School pretend to have trouble reading in a skit performed Thursday to show the possible results of slow reform efforts in Denver schools.
Amos Brown attended a Chalkbeat event in 2014 and he answered our question about what was ahead for him that school year by saying he would be "learning empty nest syndrome."
Hayleigh Colombo

With the unexpected death of WTLC radio host Amos Brown over the weekend, Indianapolis has lost an analytical mind and a journalist with a passion for schools.

Brown’s popular afternoon radio show was known for challenging city and state leaders on issues that mattered to the city’s black community, often putting education at the top of the agenda. He used his platform as a journalist to quiz school district and state education leaders about their decision-making and expose issues affecting schools, often just by opening up his phone lines.

(Read Bureau Chief Scott Elliott’s remembrance of Amos Brown from our morning newsletter here. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

He also dipped his toe into policymaking, serving more than four years on the state’s Education Roundtable.

The Roundtable was created in 1998 with the goal of uniting legislators, educators and business and community leaders on education policy, and Brown was appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2009. The Roundtable was phased out by the legislature earlier this year. Among its duties were setting academic standards and college course requirements.

After former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s emails were made public in 2013, it was revealed that Todd Huston, then on Bennett’s staff and now a state legislator, suggested appointing Brown to the Roundtable in hopes of keeping his “loud mouth” in check.

It didn’t work.

Brown continued to be a maverick on the Roundtable. In 2014, for example, he was one of just three to vote no among the 23 Roundtable members who voted on Indiana’s new academic standards, which had the unusual support of both Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

His independence earned Brown respect, even from people or organizations he sometimes criticized.

Stand For Children, a group that organizes parents and pushes for change in education in Indianapolis, was often a target of skepticism from Brown, who worried about the influence of the money it spent on school district elections. Nevertheless Justin Ohlemiller, the group’s executive director, praised Brown in a statement for his dedication to local communities.

“Amos was a believer in the power of grassroots communities, knowing that change is more sustainable and powerful when it’s driven from the bottom-up,” Ohlemiller said. “Neighborhoods grow stronger when more people have a stake in shaping them, and that’s a lesson Amos consistently taught us in his words and with his deeds.”

Ritz remembered the way Brown connected political leaders with citizens to hear their real concerns.

“I was always struck that every time I went on his show, I would leave with the name and phone number of one of his listeners that needed help in some manner or another,” she said in a statement. “Amos always made it a point to ensure that his listeners got the help they needed from their elected leaders and his presence will be greatly missed.”

State board member Gordon Hendry, a parent with children in IPS schools and former Indianapolis deputy mayor, said Brown would be sorely missed.

“We agreed on many things, but Amos was never shy about letting me know when he didn’t like something that was happening in our community,” Hendry said in a statement. “He was always kind, though. He was always willing to hear me out, and that’s a rare thing in this current political climate. “

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee tweeted his condolences after hearing of Brown’s passing.

“Devastated about the loss of longtime community activist and radio host Amos Brown,” Ferebee said. “He challenged me and all for excellence.”

The Indianapolis Public School Board also issued a statement praising Brown’s role as a communicator in Indianapolis on school issues.

“He always supported our schools and kept his finger on the pulse of the community we serve,” board members said. “We will miss his institutional knowledge, his devotion to our students and families and most of all his commitment to making Indianapolis a great place to live.”

Brown was also sometimes critical of The Mind Trust, a non-profit advocating for educational change that helped bring groups like Stand For Children and Teach for America to the city. Even so, CEO David Harris called Brown an “unwavering crusader and champion for the lost, the least and the last.”

“”In so many ways, Amos Brown was the conscience of the Indianapolis community,” he said in a statement. “Whenever there was a wrong, he tried to right it. Whenever there was injustice, he shone a light on it. And whenever someone in this city needed help, Amos was there to lead the way.”

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