The basics of Lewis Ferebee: An IPS superintendent pushing hard for change

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ferebee announces his stunning discovery that a $30 million deficit was phony in March of 2014.

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.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.