When he was picked to be the new superintendent of Indianapolis Public School in the summer of 2013, Lewis Ferebee didn’t seem to exactly fit with what the school board said it was looking for.
He was a well-regarded former principal and administrator working as the chief of staff for the superintendent of Durham, N.C., schools who had spent his entire career in traditional public school systems in that state.
But Ferebee has quickly blossomed into the collaborative leader and innovator school board members said they were looking for. At IPS he has consummated new partnerships with charter schools, forged alliances with some of the district’s harshest critics, took control of the budget and pushed hard to reshape schools so principals are empowered to make more key decisions.
At the same time, his critics have grown louder, worried that he has backed a school reform agenda without building grassroots support for changes some fear will make the district unrecognizable and place the interests of IPS families secondary to the new belief that autonomy and innovation will improve schools.
A growing reputation in North Carolina
The board had placed a premium in 2013 on hiring a proven leader with a track record of innovation and a willingness to work with charter schools and the wider community of organizations pushing for change in the school district.
At first, Ferebee hardly seemed like a perfect choice.
Of the three finalists, he was the only one who had never worked in a charter school system. In fact, for his doctoral thesis Ferebee had studied the effect of the promotion of school choice as a school improvement strategy in the federal No Child Left Behind law and concluded it had little impact on student learning.
Plus, it was two mavericks on the board — Annie Roof and Gayle Cosby — who recruited Ferebee to apply after hearing him speak at a National School Boards Association meeting, not the board members most associated with the school reform community in the city.
Still, he was the board’s unanimous choice.
Ferebee’s personal track record of turning around troubled schools impressed the board most.
After growing up in Columbia, S.C., and graduating from North Carolina Central University, Ferebee earned a masters degree from George Washington University and doctorate from East Carolina University. His teaching career began in Virginia, but he soon moved on to Greensboro, N.C.
There he took over as principal of one of the city’s lowest-scoring elementary schools. Soon the test scores jumped. From there he asked to be named principal of the city’s lowest-scoring middle school, which his elementary school fed into. It was soon one of the best-scoring urban middle schools in the state.
Ferebee then was placed in charge of overseeing a portfolio of the district’s most troubled schools. He followed the superintendent to Durham, where he helped craft a $70 million plan to reduce spending in part by closing schools.
He pitched himself as the perfect turnaround superintendent for Indianapolis.
A stunning revelation
Ferebee’s initial plan called for big changes quickly.
Administrators had to reapply for their jobs, and several longtime district employees were not selected to continue with the district. He endorsed an Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce study of the district that called for deep cuts in central office spending, selling school buildings and renting building space to outside groups.
But the biggest bombshell came in March of 2014 when he gathered reporters and shared a discovery he had made while poring over IPS financial data during winter break: the district’s much-touted $30 million deficit was fake.
In fact, Ferebee reported, IPS has finished 2013 with a $4 million surplus.
A week later, Ferebee fired the district’s chief financial officer. He said the district for years had inflated budgets to make it appear there was less money than it actually had. Under the weight of perceived shortfalls, teachers had been laid off and other cuts put in place over several years. Ferebee said that practice would end. He promised regular financial reports and named a committee to oversee financial operations.
The discovery that IPS was not falling short suddenly relieved Ferebee of growing pressure to make dramatic changes, such as school closings and layoffs.
New partners manage IPS schools
Under Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White, the district treated charter schools as competitors.
But Ferebee set out quickly to make them partners.
Ferebee said his motivation was seeing brand-new schools built to house charter schools just blocks from IPS buildings that were short of students and costing the district money to maintain.
Why not, he thought, move some of those charter schools into IPS buildings that had empty space?
To make that possible, Ferebee began talks with two frequent critics of IPS — Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the education committee in the Indiana House.
The result was a bill that allowed IPS to partner with charter schools in new ways. The district could rent space to charter schools, but it could also allow charter school networks to manage IPS schools under special contracts.
Over the next year, Ferebee moved quickly to expand existing partnerships with Enlace and KIPP charter schools, which used former IPS school buildings, by adding new deals with other networks.
The most high-profile was a contract with Phalen Leadership Academies, a charter school network. Phalen was given total control over one of the district’s lowest-scoring elementary schools: School 103. Phalen hired its own teachers and staff and runs the school autonomously, even hiring its own contractors for custodial and groundskeeping services.
More preschool, more teacher pay
Ferebee made good on two of his biggest early promises by the end of 2015 — IPS expanded its preschool offerings and gave its teachers a raise.
The preschool expansion began under White, but Ferebee quickly embraced it, saying he hoped to offer enough preschool spots for all of the city’s four-year-olds.
That promise was helped along by Ballard, who won a long battle with City-County Council Democrats to establish a $40 million, five-year plan to offer scholarships to help poor families pay preschool tuition.
Both efforts have proved very popular, as more young children have flooded into learning programs, both at IPS and at private preschools.
In 2015, Ferebee repeatedly said he wanted to give teachers a raise, even if he had to tap reserve funds to do it. the district had gone five years without a base pay increase for teachers.
Negotiations with the teachers unions produced just that — a contract with raises for teachers at all experience levels, but especially large bumps for novice teachers and those at mid-career.
A bold future vision
By the end of 2015, Ferebee unveiled a wide-ranging strategic plan with 70 recommendations for changes in IPS, including new grade configurations for schools, surveying students and families about the services they receive and starting a process that could lead to asking voters for a tax hike to help modernize some of its school buildings.
But the centerpiece of the plan is a three-year shift away from direct central office oversight of schools to a system of autonomous schools monitored by a much smaller administrative team.
The new system will start with a pilot in 2016-17 of eight schools that volunteer for more freedoms. But eventually the plan calls for all schools to follow that approach.
It also calls for more partnerships with outsiders operating IPS schools under contract in the mold of the Phalen management plan for School 103.
A key element to make it work will be a more equitable distribution of money per student to schools. But that will be tricky, because it could reduce the money now being spent on high-scoring magnet schools to free up cash to share with schools that have more children who face barriers to learning.