Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools adds schools to ‘innovation’ program, reshaping district

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 69 is now managed by Kindezi Academy.

The Indianapolis Public Schools took another step today in its dramatic shift away from the traditional school district model.

While IPS has historically run all of its schools from its central office downtown, the IPS School Board is increasingly transferring schools to private managers who operate independently from the district. Today, the board added two more schools to its “innovation school” roster, allowing them to operate independently, like charter schools, while still remaining under the authority of IPS.

School 44, a diverse Westside school, will become Global Prep Academy, converting the school to a dual language Spanish immersion model. School 69, a long-struggling school Northeast of downtown, will be restarted as Kindezi Academy, a school founded by the leaders of the Enlace Academy charter school where students will spend time during each class working independently on computers, in addition to lectures and small group work with teachers.

Read: Two struggling IPS schools could be ‘restarted’ next year.

By next fall, more than 10 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students are projected to attend schools that run independently with charter-like flexibility.

It’s a big change for the state’s largest school district. All IPS students were in traditional, district-managed schools until this year when the district converted a failing school to an “innovation” school, launched a new elementary school with a charter partner and pulled four existing schools into its innovation network.

The changes are controversial, in part because when schools convert, their teachers and staff are no longer represented by the teachers union. They are hired and paid by the charter network or non-profit that runs the school. The outside groups then control money and resources that used to flow to traditional district schools.

“They are taking away from the traditional public schools,” said Larry Yarrell, a former IPS principal and chair of the NAACP education committee. “You’re taking money away from the traditional schools. You’re taking resources away from the traditional schools. You’re taking quality teachers and educators and you’re placing them in these innovative schools.”

But supporters say the changes will lead to better schools for kids.

“If we allow our school leaders and our school teams, who know those kids best to make decisions that will best serve those kids and families, we will see improved outcomes,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district innovation officer.

The district-charter partnerships are part of a national trend in urban districts, but the legal framework and political climate in Indianapolis has accelerated the growth of these kinds of schools in the city, said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which supports the approach.

“They are moving ahead swiftly,” Posamentier said. “They’re doing it faster than you see other cities doing it.”

Next year, enrollment in IPS innovation schools will more than double, from about 1,389 to 3,076 students, according to district projections. The main reason for that jump is a plan to convert four existing district schools to innovation status and allow outside organizations to takeover management.

In addition to the vote on School 44 and School 69, the board is poised to approve applications from leaders of two IPS schools who are aiming to convert to innovation status to gain greater freedom over staffing and instruction. Those schools are Cold Spring, an environmental science magnet, and School 93, which began using the homegrown turnaround model Project Restore last year. If their plans are approved, they will be the first schools to voluntarily pursue innovation.

It’s all part of a larger district shift toward a “portfolio” strategy, where the central office provides services, from transportation to special education teachers, but does not direct choices like curriculum, staffing or teacher training. In the long term, IPS aims to transform all of its schools either to innovation status or to autonomy schools, which offer school leaders more flexibility without the full independence of innovation. Next year, the district will pilot its first six autonomous schools.

Innovation schools, which were authorized by lawmakers in 2014, are considered part of the district under state law. IPS is held accountable if the schools receive poor grades on annual state report cards and gets credit for strong student test scores. The school board also decides on contracts with outside management organizations.

But the district is giving up oversight over the day-to-day operations at schools, said board member Gayle Cosby. If something goes wrong at a school, parents can appeal to the IPS board, she said. But it has little say in how innovation schools respond.

“The only thing the IPS board has any power to do is to cancel the contract,” Cosby said. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Cosby is not opposed to all innovation plans, and she voted to convert schools 44 and 69.

One reason the district has expanded the innovation network is to stabilize long-shrinking enrollment. This year, IPS added three charter schools to the network that were previously renting space in district schools: Enlace Academy, KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. The students at those schools are now part of district enrollment.

Joining the innovation network is beneficial for charter schools in part because they get access to additional funding from property taxes that pays for services such as transportation. If the schools choose to get those services from IPS, that helps the district financially.

“We believe that’s cost neutral, and we’re bringing innovative programs to schools that have historically been struggling,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Most of the funding the state provides for students at innovation schools simply flows through the district. Based on their contracts with the district, the schools receive the full per-student allocation for the kids they serve — about $6,731 this year.

That’s more than traditional district-managed schools, which lose some of their funding to central office expenses. For example, at the relatively well-funded School 84 on the Northside, the district spends about $5,955 per student, according to a budget estimate.

As districts transition to a portfolio strategy, central offices typically provide fewer services and shrink in size and cost, Posamentier said. Instead of making education decisions, they shift to more of a broker of services that schools can choose to purchase, he said.

“Rethinking what the central office does is critical here,” he said. “Money is distributed very differently.”

IPS has already begun reducing the size of its central office. Since July 2013 when Ferebee took over, the district cut central office staff by 25 positions, which added up to a savings of $2.2 million from July 2013 through June 2015, according to the district.

Regardless of its financial impact, Johnson said increasing enrollment by attracting students to the district is one aim of innovation schools.

“It sends a positive message to families and to the community that people are interested in, invested in and want to be a part of IPS,” she said. “We’re building a really powerful narrative where people are saying, ‘I know there are great options and I’m excited to be part of the district.’ ”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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