The Indianapolis Public Schools board pushed forward with its vision for creating a more decentralized — and less unionized — district Thursday night, approving three new innovation schools.
The move comes just days after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos highlighted the Indianapolis innovation school program as a model strategy for giving local communities more control over schools.
DeVos focused on School 15, a neighborhood-led innovation school that will partner with local community groups. School 15’s plan was approved Thursday night, but so were two other schools with very different stories. School 42, a neighborhood school that has struggled on state tests, will be turned over to a charter operator as a way to stave off state intervention, and its teachers and principal will be replaced. A local charter network, Avondale Meadows, will be opening a third innovation school from scratch.
Although their situations are different, all three schools will be part of the district’s rapidly growing innovation network. Schools in the network can tap into district services such as busing and special education, and unlike charter schools, they benefit from local taxes. IPS in turn gets credit for test scores and other performance measures at the schools when the district is assessed by the state. The administration also counts students at innovation schools in the district’s enrollment — a boon to the long-shrinking district.
But the schools are controversial because they are managed by outside partners — either non-profits or charter operators. Because teachers are employed by the management groups, they are not part of the district teachers union.
That was why Elaine Bultman, a teacher and union member, said she was at the meeting to speak against the innovation conversion at School 15.
Innovation schools “are sold as a way to improve student learning, when in fact they are chiefly a measure to separate teachers from their professional association,” Bultman said. “These ideas are about adults and power over adults, not about the kids and their education.”
But Bultman was an exception at the meeting: Dozens of parents and community members turned out to support the schools.
School 15 was in the spotlight this week because DeVos highlighted it as a positive example of “out-of-the-box approaches” in a speech she gave Monday. But in fact, many of the people planning the new innovation school envision it as return to the traditional neighborhood-school model, an approach they believe will help revive a school that has chronically low test scores.
School 42 will convert to an innovation school because it is in distress. After five years of failing grades from the state, it is facing state intervention and its principal is leaving for another position. IPS is fending off the possibility of state intervention by restarting School 42 as an innovation school, managed by Ignite Achievement Academy, a charter school led by Shy-Quon Ely II and Brooke Beavers. The pair previously led Tindley Summit Academy.
“If we are not able to produce a compelling plan … the state board of education has the authority to intervene,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the board when it discussed the school last month. “We believe this is the strongest recommendation that we can present.”
Ignite leaders have been meeting with parents at School 42 in recent weeks, and they have won some support.
“I was opposed to the move to innovation at first. … I was concerned about the staff changes that come with innovation,” Courtney Byrd, a parent at School 42, told the board. But once she learned more about the school, she became supportive. “Ignite has programming that fit the needs of our kids today. Ignite wants to make learning fun for our kids again.”
Avondale Meadows Middle School will open as a new school this fall. It is an extension of an existing charter network that operates to K-8 schools, and although it will be part of the innovation network it will not be in an IPS building.