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) will replace David Harris (right) as CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit that has helped shape the city's education landscape.

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.”

Future of Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools budget plan could include layoffs and salary freezes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools is cutting spending across the district.

Schools across Indianapolis’s largest district could face hiring freezes and layoffs as the district seeks to balance its budget, according to a document published on the district website.

The finance update, which is expected to be presented Thursday for discussion to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, outlines a plan for cutting nearly $21 million from the cash-strapped district’s $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19. Some of the potential cuts include educator layoffs based on subject area, salary freezes, and reductions in custodial services and substitute teachers.

It is not clear whether all the potential cuts will be made. The district declined to immediately comment on the proposal but said staff would be available to answer questions Tuesday.

Cuts to school and certified staff budgets could save about $8.9 million. Those could include freezing external hiring, early retirement, and layoffs. Districtwide cuts — which could include freezing pay and reducing substitute teachers, custodial services, and service contracts — could save about $9.2 million. Those savings could also include proceeds from real-estate sales. About $2.75 million could be cut from special education and English language learner services.

The district could also cut transportation for field trips and after-school activities, saving about $1.5 million from the $37.7 million transportation budget.

The plan is the first detailed look at how Indianapolis students, educators, and schools could be affected by a growing financial crisis. And more cuts may come if referendums to increase property taxes in order to boost school budgets fail later this year. Those measures were originally on the May ballot, but when they received little public support, the school board suspended the campaign. District leaders are now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a proposal that’s expected to be on the November ballot.

The Chamber expects to release the results of an analysis of the district’s finances by July, according to Mark Fisher, the organization’s chief policy officer. But district leaders say they will begin making the case to voters that the property tax hikes are needed before then, through meetings with school staff, parents, and community groups.

Last week, before the details of the potential cuts were revealed, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat his administration is dedicated to planning the budget for next year.

“The focus for the administration has been on ensuring that we make the necessary reductions that we need to make right now,” he said. “Those are important messages that families need to hear from us. And we will do a lot of that between now and the end of the school year, just educating families of where we are on the finances.”

Schools are already making cuts this year, with reduced staffing and hiring, according to the document.

Earl Phalen, who heads a charter network that runs two schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, said the district already told schools they cannot plan field trips for students. “Those are important educational experiences for children,” he added.

While some of the proposed cuts may seem small, Phalen said they would have an impact on students. Campuses might be able to get by with fewer janitors, he said, but they don’t have “lavish resources.” Cutting those positions will mean that children go to schools that are not as well maintained, he said.

 

“You cut away a janitor, well, maybe the building is not going to be quite as clean. The children deserve to have a building spick-and-span,” he said. “You cut away a media specialist, well, then scholars don’t have the experience of going to a library and having that as one of their specials.”

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.