Accountability Is Watchword In Indianapolis

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Esperanza Zendejas is on a surprise visit to Shortridge Middle School. As Principal Alonzo B. Walker guides her on a tour, the superintendent peppers him with questions.

"How's your suspension rate?" she asks.

"Twenty-one percent," the principal says, leading her up a stairwell. "But our staff attendance and student attendance are good, and I'm sure our test scores will be fine."

As they head down the brightly painted hallways on a recent Monday morning, Mr. Walker pauses to pick up a scrap of paper from the otherwise immaculate floor.

Ms. Zendejas listens attentively to his update on the school's progress. She says she is pleased with the advances at Shortridge, which until this year had been one of the lowest-performing middle schools in Indianapolis.

In a year when the word "accountability" has been on the minds of nearly everyone in the public schools here, the superintendent's unannounced school visits have become commonplace.

Since Ms. Zendejas arrived a year ago with a mandate to boost performance, the district has become a case study in the kind of accountability-based school reforms that many educators say are vital to overcoming the lethargy that afflicts so many urban schools.

Though reaction to the changes has been mixed, parents, teachers, and administrators here agree on one thing: Overhauling a 44,000-student urban school district in one year is no easy task.

Waking Up 'Naptown'

Few would argue that Ms. Zendejas has failed to awaken this heartland city, which is known so well for its moderate-to-conservative ways that locals jokingly call it "Naptown."

With the school board's approval, the superintendent gave pink slIPS to nearly 300 of the system's administrators in December, sending a clear message that some could lose their positions by the beginning of the next school year. Teachers and administrators are now evaluated on criteria such as their students' attendance and test scores.

Ms. Zendejas also put 51 of the district's 86 schools on probation and issued warnings to 25 more. At one school cited for excessive problems, she recently had all the teachers reapply for their jobs.

Meanwhile, each school is now required to set up a committee of educators, parents, and staff members that must finish drafting their own school-improvement plan within the next few weeks. Educators at schools that meet their objectives next year will be eligible for incentive bonuses.

Board President Michael W. Rodman, one of Ms. Zendejas' strongest supporters, compares her task to that of a teacher on her first day of school.

"You have to be real tough at first and then ease up," he said. "We wanted someone to say, 'Look, we don't care what program you use, we want children to be able to read and write and do arithmetic at certain levels.'"

Praise hasn't come so quickly from teachers, many of whom say they've been put in a tough spot.

"It's like you're flying the plane and this year you are expected to fly higher and faster and better, and at the same time, you're on the engine and the wings trying to design it," said Rose Feeney, an elementary school art teacher.

Joyce Macke, the president of the 2,141-member Indianapolis Education Association, agreed.

"Much of what's in the plan we find overburdensome for the schools, and there's very little in there that's going to improve teachers teaching students," she said. "If Johnny's mother wants to keep Johnny at home to go shopping, I can't control that."

But Ms. Zendejas and her staff view the complaints as typical anxiety brought on by a major system change.

"I think there are some areas where none of us are in control, but we have to be concerned," Ms. Zendejas said. "Within this society, if you're a participant, I think we all have to accept some responsibility."

Politics and Perceptions

The push to reform the Indianapolis schools began well before Ms. Zendejas arrived. The school board, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, and even the Indiana legislature helped write the district's marching orders.

Early last year, Mr. Goldsmith sought help from state lawmakers in reforming a district whose board he doesn't appoint and whose budget he doesn't control.

The result was legislation requiring the district to put in place a systemwide improvement plan by the 1996-97 school year. Passed by lawmakers in spring 1995, the measure emphasizes the kind of performance indicators the district administration, under Ms. Zendejas, has stressed so much this year.

The board approved her accountability plan last summer, more than a year before the deadline for reforming the district set by the legislature. In December, the board completed its broader "achievement plan," which spells out how reforms will fulfill the state requirements.

Although the law gave the district a clear mandate, the political maneuvering that led up to it troubles some system employees and parents.

"Politics has gotten into the schools and has caused chaos," said Charles Davis, the president-elect of the Superintendent's Parent Advisory Council, a parents' group made up of one elected representative from each of the district's schools.

Teachers complain that the reform law severely curtailed the power of their local union. With its passage, they lost much of their authority to negotiate over the rules governing teacher transfers, working conditions, and grievances. Teachers here now can bargain only on salaries, wages, and related benefits.

Left with fewer bargaining rights than teachers' unions in any other Indiana district, the Indianapolis Education Association took the school system to court. A superior court ruled against the teachers in December. They are in the process of appealing to the state supreme court.

Meanwhile, some parents believe the superintendent is marching to orders that Mr. Goldsmith set primarily to enhance his political prospects. This month, the mayor won the state's Republican primary in his race for the governorship.

"He has used the Indianapolis public schools situation to his own advantage politically," said Sally Flood, the parent of four Indianapolis students and a local representative of the Indiana PTA. "Our students are city students, and yet for a long time he has compared our schools to suburban districts that have a lot more wealth."

Ms. Flood and other parents argue that the district is no worse than other large urban systems. The political rhetoric, they say, and news accounts of low test scores, poor teacher attendance, and school violence have given Indianapolis an image problem.

The result is what Ms. Flood calls "bright flight"--parents leaving the city and taking their well-performing children with them.

"A lot of families were tired of reading about IPS in the papers and left the system," said Bob Hazzard, a real estate broker and the father of an Indianapolis 8th grader.

Since the district's heyday in 1967, its enrollment has plummeted from nearly 110,000 to its current 44,000, though the city's population has grown slightly to about 818,000.

An Urban Warrior

Reforming the Indianapolis district may be her most ambitious professional task to date, but challenge is nothing new to Ms. Zendejas, who is both the first woman and the first Hispanic to head the district.

The challenge is what drew the 43-year-old administrator here from the top schools post in Brownsville, Texas.

"When I applied here, the one thing that really turned me on was that the headhunter said Indianapolis really needs an urban warrior," Ms. Zendejas said.

Born in the Mexican village of La Yerbabuena, she was the youngest of nine children whose father worked illegally in California. She became a U.S. citizen in 1973, and in 1985 earned a doctorate from Stanford University.

While taking classes and raising her first daughter on her own, she juggled jobs teaching tennis and cleaning homes.

"My family keeps me in balance," Ms. Zendejas said recently. "My parents don't really know what I do. Back in Mexico, my father still thinks I'm a school teacher. He still introduces me to people as the maestra"--Spanish for teacher.

At work, she is all business. She spends most mornings with one hand on the wheel of her white BMW and the other holding a cellular phone. She keeps in constant touch with her office while driving from school to school on her surprise visits.

"It gives you a clearer perspective on what is happening, as opposed to them preparing for you because you're the superintendent," said Ms. Zendejas, who admits the visits are as much about fact-finding as goodwill.

On the way to Shortridge Middle School, she stopped at an elementary school. There, she pointed out smudges on a stairwell floor, praised an art teacher for the work adorning the halls, and queried a librarian about book acquisitions before kicking off her shoes to shoot baskets with students in the gym.

She rarely has to look far for evidence of a school's progress. At Shortridge, a placard near the main office shows the current student-attendance rate--calculated to the second decimal point: 94.67 percent. A memorandum inside the office lists those staff members who haven't missed work in the past month, including the principal.

A central goal of her first year, she said, has been "accepting the problems that we have and showing that we're doing something about it."

Vol. 15, Issue 35

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