Kenyan private schools inspire $100,000 idea for Indianapolis

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Fourth grade lead teacher Kate Skeens, right center, works with students at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14. Much of the instruction at the school takes place in small groups. The Mind Trust selected Enlace's leaders to run innovation network schools.

An Indianapolis nonprofit is betting that a school reform plan with roots in Africa can help turn around a troubled Indianapolis public school.

Mahmoud Sayani, one of three winners of a second round of $100,000 fellowships financed by the Mind Trust and designed to incubate ideas for Indianapolis Public Schools, hopes to build on lessons he learned running a network of private schools in Kenya called Aga Khan Education Services.

The other winners were Kevin Kubacki and Shanae Staples of Enlace Academy, a charter school that shares space in an IPS building, and Sheila Dollaske, principal of IPS’s Key Learning Community, a K-12 school known for an emphasis on project based learning.

The fellows get the money, support from The Mind Trust and time off to develop their ideas for how to improve schools. They will eventually pitch their plans to the Indianapolis Public School Board, which can choose to try them out at some of their lowest-scoring schools. School 103 was recently picked for an overhaul by one of last year’s winners, a team of Marlon Llewellyn and Earl Phalen of the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school network.

The three Innovation School Fellowship Program winners, announced today, were chosen from 77 applicants.

Learning from Kenya

All students, even those from poor families, can succeed with a rigorous program under the right leadership and school culture, Sayani said.

Mahmoud Sayani
Mahmoud Sayani

“We have to get the entire school community working toward the success of all the students in the school,” he said.

Sayani’s goal is to design a school that gives kids the technical skills to someday solve complex global problems. To get there, he envisions an academic course of  study that combines the International Baccalaureate program with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. IB aims to prepare kids for a global world by teaching them to think critically, use research, ask probing questions and get involved in their communities.

“(IB) is a great framework which brings the best contemporary thinking in education and it allows you to bring in aspects of project-based learning and STEM,” Sayani said. “It’s about helping students think about an interconnected world, an intercultural awareness and a respect for all cultures and differences among people.”

Sayani grew up in Kenya before later attending Duke University and pursuing a 15-year career in engineering. A desire to make a more direct impact on people’s lives led him to humanitarian work, and eventually, education, he said.

New ideas from within IPS

While Sayani’s ideas were cultivated on another continent, Dollaske has spent the last three years trying to turn around one of the most famous IPS schools.

Key Learning Community Principal Sheila Dollaske
Key Learning Community Principal Sheila Dollaske

Key Learning Academy, serving kindergarten to 12th grade, was the world’s first school to use a curriculum built on the theory of “multiple intelligences,” which aims to tailor teaching based on the different intellectual strengths of students. The once high-scoring school had fallen to an F grade from the state when Dollaske took over, aiming to raise test scores while maintaining the school’s identity.

IPS proposed closing the school last year but changed course after criticism from the community and some school board members. With Dollaske leaving the school to start work on her “innovation network” idea, she said IPS will hire another principal to take over Key.

After her first year, the elementary school’s ISTEP passing rate had the biggest gain in the city. It fell back some last year but still is 10 percentage points above where it was when Dollaske took over. Scores have also risen for middle and high school students at Key in her tenure.

“Key is at a much better place academically right now,” Dollaske said. “I do honestly believe that Key is now poised and has the systems and structures in place to be an elite magnet program.”

Dollaske has plans to develop a middle school that includes education services for the students’ family members. One idea for the school is to partner with Goodwill Education Initiatives’ Excel Center, which is aimed at high school drop outs, to help those family members who need earn their high school diplomas.

Students in IPS’s middle grades are some of the most struggling students in the district when it comes to test scores.

“I was struck by the need for high-quality middle schools,” Dollaske said. “That is such a pivotal time. If we could better prepare incoming ninth graders, I think it would have a significant impact on the community high schools.”

Expanding a charter school partnership

Enlace Academy’s leaders say their fellowship is a chance to expand what they called an already strong partnership with IPS.

Enlace Academy leaders Kevin Kubacki and Shenae Staples.
Enlace Academy leaders Kevin Kubacki and Shanae Staples.

Enlace focuses on combining computer-led instruction with small-group learning led by a teacher. It shares a building with IPS’s Gambold Preparatory High School on the West side. The charter school serves a large population of English language learners and Hispanic students.

Through the fellowship, the school could expand to a second site by also operating an IPS school directly.

“We built a really strong relationship with Gambold Prep, with tutoring and mentoring and coaching and really being able to extend that reach and partnership,” Kubacki said. “We’re going to work together. I see this as a wonderful step in that direction, to really start to implement best practices throughout the city.”

The innovation network program has been criticized in the past by IPS school board members who argued it shouldn’t entrust its most troubled schools to groups that yet don’t have a track record of showing student test gains. Both Phalen Leadership Academy and Enlace Academy haven’t been in existence long enough to have earned an A to F letter grade rating from the state based on their students’ test scores.

But Mind Trust CEO David Harris argued those concerns are unfounded. He used Sayani as an example of someone who he believes is a great leader but doesn’t have experience leading a school that is subject to the state’s accountability system.

“To think that we would say we’re not going to avail ourselves of his unique experience because he didn’t (lead) a school that took the ISTEP test is incredibly shortsighted,” Harris said. “Everyone who has ever launched a school had to do it for the first time.”

The first innovation network school, to be run by Phalen’s charter school network, opens at School 103 next fall. Philanthropic groups rallied around the partnership and vowed to provide a host of extra supports for the school’s student.

“This is a signal that schools in IPS will not exist in perpetuity and that we will take action on those that are consistently underperforming,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “Employing innovative solutions is an attempt to avoid repeating what we already know is unsuccessful. Student achievement is paramount, and we’re excited about what these new opportunities might bring.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”