For sixth-grader Amal Yousuf, the best part of going to Cold Spring School is the time she spends kayaking, fishing and sledding.

Those aren’t the sort of activities she might expect at an average school, but Cold Spring isn’t an average school. It’s not even an average IPS magnet school.

Its unique setting made Cold Spring perfect for the environmental magnet theme it long ago adopted, but which the school is now pushing hard to fully embrace. Cold Spring sits on a 39-acre campus with a greenhouse, gardens and hiking trails.

Teachers and Principal Carrie Scott now hope to make those assets even more central to the way their students learn over the next few years with a plan that would convert Cold Spring into one of the district’s new “innovation” schools next fall.

More time by the creek waters or spent with the small animals and fish who share the school’s land is a good fit for Amal.

“At most schools, they would just stay inside,” she said, “but our school, when it’s warm outside, sometimes if we have time, they will take us outside.”

A chance for schools to take control

More freedom for how lessons are taught is the big value school leaders see in becoming an innovation school. Strict district requirements for how teachers use instructional time leaves less time for learning through the many opportunities that accompany a rich natural campus, Scott said.

Things should look different with the educators at the school making the key decisions.

“It encourages our creativity and our teachers’ creativity,” Lori Garcia, a literacy coach at the school, said of the flexibility to choose curriculum.

Innovation schools are part of the new IPS strategy to shift power from the central office to school leaders.

Innovation schools are managed by outside partners, usually charter school networks or non-profit groups. Cold Spring leaders plan to form a new non-profit organization to oversee the school, Scott said.

Cold Spring made it through the initial IPS innovation application interview in the fall, Scott said. In December, it received a $50,000 planning grant from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that pushes for educational change. School leaders are completing the final application, which they plan to present to the IPS school board in the spring. The Mind Trust brought a busload of community leaders to the school today to learn about the school and its plan.

Innovation schools work sort of like charter schools, but they are embedded within IPS. School leaders have a lot of flexibility to decide how they run the schools, making decisions about curriculum, class time and staffing. But the district can end its contract with the partnering organization if it’s not satisfied with the school management. And the state attributes student test scores at innovation schools to IPS.

Innovation schools may choose whether to contract with the district for services, such as food service or transportation. Teachers are employed directly by the managing organization, not IPS, and they are not part of the union. That has sparked some concern from union leaders and from teachers who have to give up the protections and benefits of falling under a union contract.

In part because Cold Spring would be one of the first IPS schools to convert to innovation status, it’s a relatively unfamiliar proposition for staff.

“There’s still a lot of things we don’t know,” said Garcia, who’s concerned about the potential instability for educators. “Change is always hard.”

But Garcia said she is becoming more comfortable with the idea as she learns more about it.

A diverse school with an A-rating

Cold Spring is a diverse school with a high poverty rate that mirrors many schools across IPS. The student body is nearly 69 percent black, more than 10 percent Hispanic and about 13 percent white. More than 67 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, just 3 percentage points below the district average. To qualify, a family of four must make less than $43,500 annually.

Cold Spring students typically perform well on state tests. In 2014, more than 77 percent of students passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP. But when new standards and a new test were introduced in 2015, scores at Cold Spring had an unusually steep decline, down to just 29 percent of students passing both parts of the test.

Because of a state law protecting schools from penalties for low scores on the new test, however, Cold Spring remains an A-rated school. If the IPS board approves the innovation plan, Cold Spring would be one of the first high-performing IPS schools to become an innovation school. The process so far has mostly been used to try to turn around deeply troubled schools or to incorporate existing charter schools into IPS.

A plan to expand science offerings

In this case, Scott said she sees it as an opportunity to intensify the school’s focus on science. When she took over as principal at Cold Spring four years ago, it was officially an environmental magnet, but there were no dedicated environment classes, she said.

“From the very beginning, as a science magnet school for the district, I could not figure out why we didn’t have a science class,” Scott said. “This year we were able to be a little creative with our staffing and create an environmental studies class for our students.”

As an innovation school, administrators would have the flexibility to add another class using Project Lead the Way curriculum, a privately developed science program heavily based on learning through student projects. Another idea on the table is to extend Cold Spring’s school day to offer science focused clubs and enrichment activities for students, Scott said.

Cold Spring has a strong partnership with nearby Marian University, and leaders were considering converting to a university lab school, Scott said. When the district launched the innovation model, they decided to go that route instead.

As the school goes through the innovation application process, Scott has been learning about the elements of school management that principals typically leave to district administrators.

“I’m used to just being able to pick up a phone and call somebody downtown at the district office,” she said. “(But) I’m getting a lot better with knowing what questions to ask when I go into finance meetings or (human resources) meetings.”