During her public interview to become the permanent superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, Aleesia Johnson let an image of a dead fish linger on the screen above her.
The jarring picture, from the district’s racial equity training, was meant to convey that the problem is not with the students of Indianapolis who are struggling like fish washing ashore. The issue, the toxic lake failing them, is the school system.
Johnson, who has been interim head of Indianapolis Public Schools for six months, focused her interview with the school board on one topic: tackling disparities in a school system that often fails children of color. The problem is apparent in suspension and expulsion rates and the identification rates for special education, she said.
“We have to start having those hard conversations,” she told the board. “If we deal with all the racial disparities that we see, and we make movement there, then we’ll see things like special education disproportionality get better.”
Days later, Johnson was tapped to lead Indianapolis Public Schools, the district’s first African-American woman superintendent. She’s not the district’s first black leader — her predecessors Lewis Ferebee and Eugene White were both African-American. And race and ethnicity have perennially been the backdrop of the most pressing issues facing Indianapolis Public Schools leaders, including recent tension over how to woo back middle-class families, distribute money across schools, and improve the lowest-performing schools.
But Johnson appears to be confronting the role of race in Indianapolis Public Schools with rare honesty, even if she does not have a concrete agenda for tackling many inequitable district policies.
“Talking about race is hard,” said Johnson in an interview with Chalkbeat this week. But later she continued, “you can’t look at our outcomes and look at the gap and not talk about it.”
“You can’t look at our criminal justice system. You can’t look at our neighborhoods. You can’t look at our healthcare system — The pattern’s the same in every single system. So we can’t not talk about it,” she said. “This is happening across our country, in every school system in America.”
For some, a conversation about race and education in Indianapolis seems overdue. Indianapolis Public Schools enrolls 31,000 students, nearly 80% of which are children of color — including about 46% who are black and 28% who are Hispanic, according to state data.
Indianapolis advocate and retired educator Carole Craig said that talking about race is essential to leading a transparent district administration. “Transparency would include talking about the hard issues of — who are the children who are not succeeding?” Craig said. “You can’t do that without talking about race.”
Johnson is not alone in pushing for a conversation about race. Last year the Central Indiana Community Foundation, a powerful philanthropy, shifted its focus to equity and tackling racism. And this is a moment when discussions of race are common nationally, such as a powerful exchange between California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate.
Still, it can be easy to elide uncomfortable conversations about race, said Mark Russell, director of advocacy and family services for the Indianapolis Urban League. Historically, people in Indiana have avoided talking about institutionalized racism, he said.
The district’s troubling racial history, though, can’t be ignored. Policymakers created schools to segregate black students, such as Crispus Attucks High School, and Indianapolis Public Schools was one of the last districts in the state to integrate. The city also has 11 school districts because of racial bias in 1970.
That’s “something people do not want to talk about. You’re looking at the historical foundation for those institutionalized resource gaps going back to that time,” Russell said.
The fact that Johnson is willing to acknowledge disparities for children of color “sets her apart from many of her peers,” Russell said.
The next test will be how Johnson’s philosophy about equity shapes district policy.
“It’s one thing to have a rhetorical commitment, but it’s quite another to interlay that rhetoric and accompany it with action and allocation of resources,” Russell said.
In her other roles in the district, Johnson is known for her close ties with charter schools and her support for giving principals more independence. As superintendent, however, she oversees nearly 50 traditionally managed neighborhood and magnet schools, which her broader vision will help shape.
Indianapolis Public Schools leaders have been taking steps to make the district more equitable for years. They’ve refashioned school funding and tinkered with admission rules at popular magnet schools. But in many ways, the district is still a place of haves and have-nots.
A district analysis from earlier this year found that despite changes in admission rules designed to make magnet schools more accessible, four of the most popular programs — which are already disproportionately white — are enrolling an increasing number of white students. That’s because white families tend to have an advantage under the current admission rules, and board members are once again considering changes.
At the same time, although Indianapolis Public Schools rolled out a funding approach that aims to send more money to schools with higher need students in 2017, the district still sends millions of extra dollars to magnet programs that are popular among middle-class families.
Johnson doesn’t have a concrete plan for tackling the issues of funding and access to magnet programs. But she supports reevaluating admission policies. And she said the district needs to think through how much special programs like Montessori cost, whether some schools get more money than they need, and whether those programs are paying off in better outcomes for students.
Those disparities are going to be hard to tackle because schools and families can feel like they are losing out. To shift money to high-need schools, the district must cut funding from others. And changes in admission rules could mean that families who previously had an edge don’t win seats. The challenges are compounded because popular magnet schools often draw middle-class families to the district who have lots of other school options.
“It would be dishonest if I said I was not cognizant of the fact that there are certainly families who could choose to go elsewhere,” Johnson said.
“That said, I also can’t excuse or sort of turn a blind eye, when I see evidence of things that we’re doing that might be upholding systems of racism or systems of discrimination,” she said. “These are real conversations that we need to engage our families and our communities in.”