School 27 is a Center for Inquiry magnet school, part of a well-regarded Indianapolis Public Schools network of three schools that adapt the inquiry method of teaching science — asking students to consider a problem and experiment to try to solve it — to all subjects.

Herron High School, is a charter school that follows a “classical” education method, which aims to base learning on critical thinking skills.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, today bused about 15 community leaders and others to visit both as part of an effort to promote unique Indianapolis schools that its leaders think are working.

“We need to engage the community about what’s happening in the public education system more,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust. “We think we need to have a more constructive dialogue, and one way is to actually see what is happening in our best schools.”

Creating two unconventional schools

When Jamilyn Bertsch first became principal of School 27 five years ago, she remembers it as one of the lowest-performing schools in IPS. The school struggled to maintain discipline and fewer students enrolled every year. Bertsch came from School 2, an A-rated school that piloted the Center For Inquiry curriculum when it relaunched with the new design in 2000. CFI is a district-created school model credited with raising test scores at School 84 and School 2.

Bertsch’s job was to make School 27 a high-scoring CFI school, too. But it hasn’t been easy or a fast turnaround.

The biggest challenge has been building a team of teachers who believed in the CFI approach.

“CFI works because we all share the same philosophies and beliefs about how kids learn and what kinds of teachers and educators we want to be,” Bertsch said.  “So you feel that passion and that belief and that shared vision.”

The 273 students who go to School 27 face some tough obstacles. About 60 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 23 percent receive special education services, the highest percentage in the district.

So far, the test scores have been mixed. On ISTEP, just more than half of students passed both reading and math last year at 52.7 percent, the same percentage as when CFI debuted there in 2011. That’s slightly above district average, but far below the state average of 74.7 percent. But students are making gains. The state rated School 27 a C last year, up from a D the year before.

While School 27 remains a work in progress, Herron High School is an established test score success story.

Herron was just one of 14 charter schools rated an “A” grade in 2013 of more than 50 that were rated. It is also one of  four charter schools to earn an “A” for the past four years. The school also had a graduation rate of more than 94 percent for 114 seniors in 2013.

But the school, located just few minutes away from School 27 on Indianapolis’ north side, has some advantages. Of almost 700 students attended the high school last year, only about 40 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches — a low number compared to most IPS high schools.

The school’s classical liberal arts curriculum might be part of the reason why it attracts somewhat more affluent families. The building once housed an art college and still retain the airy openness of art studios. Principal Janet McNeal has led the school since it opened in 2006, and watched it grow from just 98 students the first year.

“We had a chance to build a school around a classical model where ideas transcend throughout the ages,” she said. “And we have a chance to get school right.”

Can the models be replicated?

For reform groups like The Mind Trust, which are pushing for the city to embrace and grow its high-scoring schools, the question is: can schools that succeed be copied elsewhere?

That was Harris’ question for Bertsch.

But in her view, the advantage of applying CFI curriculum to new schools isn’t the only key to good results. Even schools that follow traditional methods can score like magnet schools. When it happens, often those schools have not just good curriculum, but strong support within the school and outside of it.

“Teachers need time to plan, teachers need time to work together,” Bertsch said. “And it would be wonderful if we could find a way in our country … to be able to say to teachers, ‘You’re professionals, and we want to give you more resources and time to do this really important work.’”

For charter schools, money is sometimes a barrier to serving more students.

As a charter school, McNeal said Herron’s biggest worry is funding. Charter schools receive less state aid per student than traditional public schools, missing out on extra funds for buildings and busing, for instance. Herron spends about $75,000 per year on public bus passes just to get its students to school, and some of them take as many as three buses each morning.

To overcome their barriers, Herron and CFI schools both depend on good leadership, supportive families and a staff that believes in their approach. Each also has a strong neighborhood connection.

For example, Herron partners with the nearby Harrison Center for the Arts to use its gym for sports and physical education. More than 20 city organizations have Herron students completing internships. In return, having a high-rated school nearby helps the neighborhood feel more stable and attract families.

“We have a give-and-take relationship, and we love that,” McNeal said. “We love what we have been able to do for our neighborhood, but for us to be a quality school, we need our neighborhood to pitch in, and they do.”