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Indianapolis Ponders the Post-Zendejas Era

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The likely departure of the Indianapolis schools chief amounts to a watershed event for that district. Or not, depending on whom you ask.

Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas announced this month that she plans to step down a year before her contract ends in spring 1999. Ms. Zendejas--who came to Indianapolis in May 1995 with marching orders to boost student achievement--said school board support for her reform efforts was uncertain now and might erode further after a May election, when four of the seven seats are up for grabs.

"It appears unlikely that there will be consensus about reforms essential for the long-range vitality of the system," she wrote in an Oct. 7 letter to school board President Julie Scott.

The 45-year-old superintendent said she wants to finish out the current school year.

Her two years as the head of the 44,000-student district have been marked by controversy and rocky relations with teachers, parents, and some board members, who say her efforts to hold teachers and principals accountable for school performance have gone too far, too fast.

Belief, Not Just Support

In a telephone interview last week from an office filled with flowers of thanks, Ms. Zendejas acknowledged that the majority of the board has approved most of her reform plans. But votes alone do not provide the level of commitment needed to move the system forward, she said.

"It's believing in what you are doing, not just support" in the form of votes, she said. "Board members don't believe in what they are doing."

Some Indianapolis political, business, and media leaders are portraying Ms. Zendejas' announcement as a wake-up call the likes of which the struggling district has not heard before.

But school officials and the local teachers' union contend that Ms. Zendejas' departure does not doom school reform, although they concede that it could strengthen the hand of Mayor Stephen Goldsmith as he seeks further changes in a school system over which he has little legal control. ("Accountability Is Watchword in Indianapolis," May 22, 1996.)

Through a spokeswoman, the Republican mayor said the superintendent's planned early departure was "unfortunate" and serves "as an important call to action to rally students, parents, and teachers to make the changes that would allow a strong superintendent" like Ms. Zendejas to succeed.

Mr. Goldsmith lists education as the top concern of his administration, which governs a city encompassing 11 school districts.

'A Different Context'

In 1995, before Ms. Zendejas' arrival, the mayor successfully lobbied the Indiana legislature to demand improvement in the Indianapolis public schools. As a result, legislation that year required the district to adopt a systemwide improvement plan emphasizing concrete performance standards.

"I think [Ms. Zendejas' decision] should cause us to sit up and take stock of this and ask whether we need a different context" for school reform in the city, said David Shane, the president of CLASS, or Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools, a business-supported group pressing for educational change in the region.

Mr. Shane focused attention specifically on the seven-member elected school board. "The board as a political body is an enormous barrier" to progress, he contended, accusing the panel, on the one hand, of an "inability to set a course and stay it" and, on the other, of interfering in the details of school affairs.

Neither Mr. Shane nor Mr. Goldsmith, who has advocated private school tuition vouchers and the privatization of school functions as valuable approaches to reform, would specify how the schools should be governed differently. Rather, they said that public discussion should take into account a range of alternatives.

But as examples of what could be done Mr. Shane pointed to Baltimore, Chicago, and Cleveland--cities in which the mayor has or expects to assume a larger role in running the schools.

Two days after Ms. Zendejas' announcement, the Indianapolis Star weighed in with an editorial calling her move "an unmistakable cry to lawmakers" that the district "needs more tools to survive."

No Replacement Set

But Ms. Scott, the school board president, argued that the reforms launched by Ms. Zendejas will survive her departure, even under the present structure. "We're not making a shift," she said last week.

Joyce Macke, the president of the 2,100-member Indianapolis Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, was among those disagreeing with the view that there is a crisis in the making. Indeed, she said, Ms. Zendejas' replacement might be more effective in bringing teachers aboard the reform train, while now they feel shut out.

"Superintendents come and go," she said. "I think whoever we get will also have high standards for the school corporation, and I hope the next person ... will be a bit more collaborative."

Ms. Zendejas said she had not ruled out a new superintendency or a move to the private sector.

The school board has not yet decided on a response to the announcement. Ms. Scott said she favors trying to persuade the superintendent to stay on, and, failing that, conducting a national search.

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