Movers and shakers

The Mind Trust shaped Indy’s charter scene. Now founder David Harris is going national.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown (left) is CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit that David Harris (right) previously led.

Eleven years after founding a nonprofit that has dramatically reshaped Indianapolis schools, David Harris is stepping down to help launch an as yet unexplained national education group.

Harris is leaving his role as CEO of The Mind Trust, the most influential nonprofit in Indianapolis education, in April. He will be replaced by Brandon Brown, currently the nonprofit’s senior vice president of education innovation.

Harris’s impact on Indianapolis education has been immense but controversial. When charter schools came to Indiana in 2001, he led the office that oversaw the schools for Mayor Bart Peterson. In 2006, Peterson and Harris founded The Mind Trust with the aim of transforming the city’s education landscape. In the years since, the group has recruited education organizations to come to Indianapolis, incubated more than a dozen charter and innovation schools, given fellowships to more than 25 education leaders, and helped establish a new approach to partnerships between Indianapolis Public Schools and charter schools.

“David Harris is one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic education leaders in the nation,” Neerav Kingsland, who leads K-12 education work for the Arnold Foundation, wrote in an email. “The partnership between Indianapolis Public Schools and The Mind Trust serves as a model of how school districts and non-profits can work together to get more kids into great schools.”

Now, Harris is moving on from the city he helped shape to the national stage, although he still plans to live in Indianapolis. The national group is in the early stages of development, said Harris, who declined to provide more details about his co-founders or their plans. A release from The Mind Trust said the new organization aims to “help cities around the country build the right conditions for education change.”

It’s unclear how the new group would fit in with similar national efforts to promote Indianapolis’ strategy for improving schools. A group called Education Cities, for example, was started as a project of The Mind Trust to create similar local groups across the country.

Harris said that Indianapolis has made enormous progress on education, but many children still do not have access to great schools.

“I think there’s kind of a recognition in our community that didn’t even exist 20 years ago, and I don’t think was prevalent 11 and a half years ago, that the best way to produce result for kids is to empower educators in the building,” Harris said.

In Harris’s time at the helm of The Mind Trust, schools in Indianapolis have gone through significant changes. In addition to its support for charter schools, the group has helped launch a common enrollment system that allows parents to apply for district and charter schools in one place, and recruited several education oriented groups to support training and advocacy for educators and families in the city, including Teach for America, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), and Stand for Children.

But perhaps the most remarkable change that The Mind Trust helped bring about was the creation of innovation schools. In 2011, a Mind Trust report called for principals to have more control over spending and daily operations. A year later, the newly hired superintendent Lewis Ferebee embraced a similar idea, and in the years since, the district has created 16 innovation schools, which are managed by charter operators or nonprofits but are still under the district umbrella.

The Mind Trust’s role in Indianapolis has inspired significant backlash from some local parents and activists, who say the group’s outsize influence is pushing the district in the wrong direction.

“I honestly think that if The Mind Trust … hadn’t been in Indianapolis over the past 10 or 11 years, that IPS would not be decimated and flailing like it is now,” said Chrissy Smith, a parent and member of the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that is critical of the current administration. “We would not see innovation schools coming in. We would not see the proliferation of charter schools.”

When Harris leaves, The Mind Trust will be led by Brown, who has been with The Mind Trust since 2015. He previously led Mayor Greg Ballard’s Office of Education Innovation, which oversaw 38 schools serving nearly 15,000 students, according to The Mind Trust.

“We believe it’s critically important to have real, school level autonomy. We think it’s critical that you have an exceptional school leader in charge of that school,” Brown said. “Then it’s important to rigorously hold the school accountable for results.”

This year, about 6,300 students attend innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, and nearly 10,000 students who live in the district attend charter schools.

“Lots of people have had their hands in this, but David has been the leader and the driving force without question,” said Bart Peterson, who is the board chair for The Mind Trust. “We’ve really created an environment that I think is second to none in the country.”

a day in lansing

More ABCs, fewer sacrifices: These Detroit parents know how Michigan lawmakers can improve early childhood education.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Oriana Powell, 30, listens to a presentation about early childhood education in Lansing. Powell joined dozens of parents from across the state in calling for increased access to early learning.

Parents cheered when the a state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program, was expanded in Michigan in 2013, increasing the available seats by roughly 16,000.

But the expansion didn’t eliminate every challenge.  The program ended at 3 p.m., for starters, making it difficult for parents who hold a full-time job to pick their children up.

“What kind of job are you going to get that will let you pick up your child at 3 p.m.? Parents are literally quitting their jobs to get child care,” Ekere-Ezeh, CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, said.

With issues like this one in mind, dozens of parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids — where Ekere-Ezeh’s organization is based — traveled to Michigan’s state capital on Tuesday to make the case for the further expansion of the states’ early childhood education system. It was the first such event in at least a decade, according to the organizers.

Still unclear is whether the latest effort to expand early learning opportunities for Michigan children will succeed where past efforts have failed. The prospects seem hopeful following the election of Gretchen Whitmer, a governor who made pre-K a key part of her campaign platform.

“Every effort matters,” Heaster Wheeler, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State who previously worked for the early childhood partnership Hope Starts Here, told the Detroit contingent. “The fact that you were here today meant a whole bunch of legislators felt your presence. This is how they set their priorities.”

Many of the group’s priorities center on the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state funded pre-K program for children from low-income families.

In addition to closing at 3 p.m., the program is only offered to four-year-olds, even though experts recognize that children need help at even earlier ages. And it’s only offered to parents who make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — the second lowest cutoff for childcare subsidies in the U.S.

Roughly two dozen parents traveled from Detroit in hopes of addressing those concerns. Oriana Powell, a 30-year-old mother from Detroit, said that in the end, she would have liked more face time with her legislators. Of more than a dozen state legislators with ties to Detroit, only a handful showed up.

“They’re not just going to give it to folks,” Powell said, referring to an expansion of the state pre-K program. “It comes from parents making it very clear that we can’t continue to support anyone who’s not going to create the change that we need.”

Tuesday’s activism was only the start. Advocates say they are gearing up for a fight over early childhood education funding in the spring. They may get a hand from business groups that support expanded access to child care because more parents are available to work when they don’t have to stay home caring for children.

Powell, who has a two-year-old daughter, will be watching closely.

She recently tired of leaving her two-year-old daughter at home all day to watch TV with her grandparents. But the higher-quality program she found for her daughter came with higher costs.

After years of zeroing out every credit card bill, she’s found herself carrying a balance to deal with the $500 monthly child care bill.

“It’s been tight,” she said, “but it’s worth the sacrifice. Within a month, my daughter was coming home saying her ABCs.”

principal pipeline

MBAs wanted: Success Academy looks to woo business leaders for a fast-track principal program

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz touted her network's test scores at a press conference in 2017.

New York City’s largest charter operator is launching a fast-track program designed to quickly train business leaders to become principals at schools across the network and elsewhere.

Starting this spring, Success Academy is kicking off a two-year program to take “talented leaders from across industry” — especially those with MBAs — and convert them into principals at one of the network’s 47 schools or at other schools across the country.

The program is noteworthy partly because it could help address a consistent problem among New York City charter schools: They tend to burn through principals at a higher rate than traditional public schools do.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools, according to a recent Manhattan Institute report. Success has also struggled at times to retain principals and teachers, a challenge that has contributed to a tumultuous period at its first high school, Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan. Success officials would not say how many of its schools had new principals last fall, and added that turnover figures also include principals who move to other schools in the network.

“I don’t know if we have a strong sense either way about whether this will be effective or not,” said Marcus Winters, the researcher who authored the Manhattan Institute turnover study, noting that there is not a large research base to draw on. Researchers often “focus on teachers, but principals and other administrators really mean a lot.”

It’s not clear how many of the inaugural class of 25 fellows will wind up running a Success Academy school. The fellowship application says the boot camp is “designed to train talent new to education to become principals in our growing network of schools.” But Success spokeswoman Ann Powell also emphasized that some fellows would likely “go directly to lead schools across the country” — an effort to spread the charter network’s model elsewhere.

In the first year of the new Success program — known as “Robertson Leadership Fellows” — participants will spend three weeks learning “the basics of school design and school leadership” before spending a couple of months learning about data and operations from the central office team.

The next four months will be devoted to teaching and learning; fellows will also participate in a “specialized track” of Success Academy’s own teacher training program to learn about instruction and teacher preparation. Finally, fellows will spend a six-month stint working as an assistant principal. The entirety of the second year will be spent as an assistant principal — though at a different school than during year one.

Fellows are paid on a scale similar to assistant principals, Powell said, though she did not answer questions about their exact compensation or how much the program will cost. The Robertson Foundation, which is funding the program and has invested heavily in Success Academy, did not answer specific questions about the program, including its cost.  

The program is reminiscent of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s boot camp for aspiring principals, which also believed business principles were useful in running schools. Under that program, less experienced educators could be elevated into leadership positions after a fast-track training program that taught them to run schools like CEOs. The Aspiring Principals program was controversial; some critics argued leaders without lots of education experience should not quickly vault into principal positions.

Research found the program had some positive effects on student test scores, but a different analysis found that schools run by the program’s graduates had higher rates of teacher turnover and lower grades on progress reports. The program was ultimately phased out in 2017 under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Eric Nadelstern, a deputy chancellor during the Bloomberg administration who later ran a principal training program at Teachers College, said hiring leaders from other industries can work, but isn’t always the best strategy.

“It’s useful for somebody to have spent time in a school to be a good principal,” he said, noting the Teachers College program required three years of classroom experience. “The focus should be home grown people from your own schools who have done an outstanding job.”

Success officials acknowledged that internal teacher candidates would not be eligible for the fellowship program, but said there are alternative routes for educators to become principals. The program will be overseen by Aparna Ramaswamy, the network’s chief leadership and human resources officer, Powell said. The first group of fellows are set to begin training in April.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the description of the Aspiring Principals program.