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Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.
Courtsey: Kelly Bentley

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.
Courtesy: Kelly Bentley

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.
Courtesy: Kelly Bentley

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

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