Lewis Ferebee knew plenty of problems needed to be fixed when he came to Indianapolis 16 months ago to take over leadership of Indianapolis Public Schools, but perhaps the most persistent of them surprised him.

At the root of big issues like low teacher morale, the failure of too many students to reach their full potential and the lack of community confidence in the system was a very basic concern: what Ferebee saw as a misguided attitude about what was truly possible for Indianapolis’ children.

“I firmly believe you get what you expect,” said Ferebee in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat where he discussed his plans for the district and reflected on his tenure so far. “This woe-is-me, playing-the-victim mentality, I didn’t anticipate. Part of the work over the last year has been challenging expectations about how we operate, what we expect from our adults, and from our students.”

A surprising number of Ferebee’s biggest changes so far have connected to that theme of higher expectations — for the administration, for teachers, for students and even for the wider Indianapolis community.

But those expectations work both ways. Halfway through his second year leading IPS, questions remain about how well-matched Ferebee’s ambitions for IPS are to those of a newly-elected, reform-minded school board. He also knows he has work to do to involve parents and grow grassroots level support for his approach.

But the focus of his effort so far has been setting a new tone.

Shortly after arriving, Ferebee’s tweet that IPS’s central office wouldn’t be “an adult employment agency” under his tenure was the first in a series of clues Ferebee was embarking on a large-scale culture change.

Since then, the first-time superintendent who came from North Carolina has replaced several key central office administrators — many with people who followed him from his prior jobs outside of Indiana — and reorganized the central office. He put principals on notice. He lectured a cafeteria full of teachers from low-performing schools that he wouldn’t put up with “parking lot planning” from unprepared teachers who made up their lessons in the car just before classes began.

“I expect a lot of myself and I expect a lot of the people around me,” he said. “It’s the only way I know how to do business.”

Externally, he successfully made the case that IPS needed more authority to reshape troubled schools from skeptical state education policymakers. The district’s new slogan “Proud to be Public” is designed to combat what, for Ferebee, is a frustratingly prevalent belief that there is little IPS can do to improve student achievement with so many poor children — 82 percent of its students come from families that are poor enough qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means annual income of less than $44,000 a year.

“I refused to accept the role of the victim and whine about our students’ needs,” Ferebee said. “Conversely, I viewed it as our greatest strength. Pride is contagious and inspiring.”

He thinks he sees some early signs that his approach is making a difference, Ferebee said.

The district’s state grade rose to a D this year from an F last year, a major milestone for the superintendent, for example, although he says it’s a modest achievement compared to where IPS could score.

“We saw a lot of progress internally last year,” Ferebee said. “Now, a lot of it’s public facing. We’re no longer designated as a failing district, which is huge. It’s fascinating to see the change in the culture that’s taking place.”

Building new community partnerships

Over the next year, the district will create a new strategic plan that aims to build on those early signs of improved learning in the district and strengthen ties with business and government leaders who have showed renewed interest in IPS following all of Ferebee’s outreach efforts.

“You look at the shift in those relationships and credibility, and that’s huge,” Ferebee said. “Our relationships are in a much better place today. To truly transform IPS is going to require a community effort.”

Business leaders are among those who have showed renewed interest in partnering with IPS.

“There’s a general sense among the business community that his openness and spirit of collaboration is unprecedented,” said Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce President Michael Huber. “It’s not a knock against past administrations, but we’re in totally new territory now.”

Some of the city’s top businesses have forged new volunteer relationships with struggling IPS schools.

Fifth Third Bank Senior Vice President Scenario Adebesin said her company “adopted” School 61 at Ferebee’s request, providing volunteers and other support. The experience helping out a school where 92 percent of the kids receive free or reduced-price lunch has convinced her that the business community has a role to play in school improvement — even through volunteering.

“We want to … make a difference that is going to be impactful,” Adebesin said. “Our commitment is to stay with this school until they move from an F to an A.”

Gordon Hendry, an Indiana State Board of Education member who has a child attending an IPS school, said the change in how IPS is perceived by state policymakers now compared to under his predecessor Eugene White is night and day, in part because of increased budget transparency with taxpayers.

Last year, Ferebee personally undertook a study of IPS’s finances that resulted in a bombshell announcement: a looming $30 million budget deficit that had been cited as a reason for job cuts and possibly school closings was a phantom. In fact, IPS had ended 2013 with a modest $8 million surplus. (The final financial results for 2014, which are scheduled to be discussed on Tuesday’s school board agenda, showed the district carried over about half of that surplus last year, finishing the year with about $4 million.)

Le Boler,  organizational strategist at IPS, looks on as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee speaks with the press about the district's financial situation.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Le Boler, organizational strategist at IPS, looked on as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee spoke to the press last March about the district’s financial situation.

Ferebee laid blame for the faulty budget figures on prior administrations and fired the district’s treasurer, who had worked for former interim Superintendent Peggy Hinkley and prior superintendent White.

The incident bolstered confidence from IPS skeptics who had long distrusted White.

“Quite frankly, I wouldn’t buy a used car from the former superintendent,” Hendry said. “Dr. Ferebee did not walk in and all of a sudden have the support of the state board. He’s had to earn that support over and over. There’s still a level of caution because we want to see results and it’s very hard to get results in one year. There is a much higher degree of confidence in his ability to deliver.”

A new leadership dynamic

With a new school board poised to push even harder for reform — three challengers strongly identified with groups that want expanded school choice, higher standards and more accountability in IPS defeated three incumbents in November — Ferebee’s commitment to change in IPS will be tested.

Advocacy group Stand for Children pushed for Project Restore, a homegrown IPS turn around program, to be put in place at School 93 on the East side.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Last summer parents teamed up with the advocacy group Stand For Children to  successfully push for Project Restore, a homegrown IPS turnaround program, to be put in place at School 93 on the East side.

Is Ferebee as much of an “education reformer” as his new school board?

“That term — reformer — has been used very loosely,” Ferebee said. “I don’t use that term. Obviously, I have an affinity for public education, but as education evolves and new opportunities emerge I want to take advantage of every opportunity. If you massage the conversation, the core of it is about how we truly address poverty in our community and city.”

The new school board took office last week, and already its members are saying they have a hefty agenda aimed at changing the district.

Minutes after newly installed board President Diane Arnold was elected by the her fellow members, she rattled off a list of nearly 15 goals: from recruiting and retaining qualified principals and finding more cost savings and other efficiencies to expanding its early childhood education services and reducing the number of high school dropouts.

Board member Caitlin Hannon said the board plans to hash out more details at an upcoming retreat.

“People are watching and excited,” Hannon said. “That puts a lot of pressure of us to deliver.”

But as much as some see Ferebee strongly allied with accountability– and choice-based education reformers, some of his actions have appealed strongly to traditionalists who view those ideas as misguided and IPS’s problems as tied more strongly to a lack of community concern about, and investment in, poor children.

At Ferebee’s direction, IPS sought and won a federal grant to expand free breakfast and lunch for all IPS students, not just those who qualify for the federal program. The idea is to reduce the stigma of using the program and ensure poor students get to eat even when their families don’t sign up for the program.

Arlington High School will be returned  to IPS control after two years managed independently in state takeover.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Arlington High School will be returned to IPS control next fall after two years being managed independently in state takeover.

He has pushed for increased funding from the state, for instance, joining traditional Democrats and teachers unions. Ferebee also has been deeply critical of the process by which the Indiana State Board of Education has taken over failing IPS schools and handed them off to charter school groups to be managed independently from IPS, again more in line with critics of school reform.

He has even echoed teachers unions’ call for more money for teachers. A new IPS teacher contract this year included a modest pay raise for teachers after five years without a pay hike for most teachers.

“He seems to be concerned with people getting paid more,” said teachers union president Rhondalyn Cornett. “He understands we’re losing people to different districts.”

Strong parent connection remains elusive

But not all of Ferebee’s proposed changes for the district have gone over as well.

He took some heat in November after proposing broad changes for magnet schools that would move students and programs out of Shortridge High School, close Key Learning Community, and relocate some programs to Arsenal Tech High School.

At a packed school board meeting, parents and student complained that the changes were harmful and they hadn’t been given a chance to weigh in before the decision was made.

Merry Juerling, a parent of IPS students and member of the group Parent Power Indianapolis, said she doesn’t think parent engagement in key decisions has ever been IPS’s strong suit — including now. She said the new administration seems more interested in making friends with special interest groups than hearing from parents.

Could Shortridge High School be the future home of Gambold Prep?
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Big changes to the programs at  Shortridge High School for next year left parents feeling cut out of the decision-making process.

“You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth,” Juerling said. “It’s no different than the last 12 years of IPS. There’s never been any true parent engagement. Teachers, students and parents are the true stakeholders. They know what is and is not going to work.”

The backlash from the magnet school changes could be “hard to live down,” said former school board member Michael Brown, who was ousted from his seat in a landslide election in November by LaNier Echols, a charter school dean and first-time candidate. Brown was initially enthusiastic about Ferebee’s hiring as a board member, but became more critical over the last year.

“People are very concerned about some of the changes that are being made without first going to the public,” Brown said. “(Ferebee) came in with the mantra of being the listening superintendent and there are times that I’ve questioned who (he’s) listening to. Once he puts a plan out there he’s going to stick with it unless he doesn’t have the votes. That’s a tad bit concerning.”

But Brown acknowledged that Ferebee seems to have broad appeal overall with parents and others.

“He’s a likable person,” Brown said. “He’s never experienced the pitchforks and torches that the Indianapolis community is known for.”

Ferebee said he knows the district has room to grow in rebuilding relationships with parents and families over the upcoming year.

“We know we have a lot more work to do, but when we get comments and anecdotal notes about parents’ (positive) experiences, that’s very rewarding,” Ferebee said. “We want to make it easy, pleasant and convenient.”

Last summer IPS hired Deb Black, once an employee of Stand For Children, with the hope of improving parent and family engagement at the district.

Since then, Black has had meetings at 48 IPS schools to try to connect with principals and teachers, has provided more than 50 professional development hours to her staff and is working on a data project to get a better sense of where parental involvement efforts are most needed.

“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Black said. “What I hear consistently is often no matter where we are, parents have not felt connected to the schools and really have not ever felt that they were partners in what’s going on. We’re seeing that starting to change.”