Lewis Ferebee may seem like an unlikely champion of charter schools. The son of educators whose own career has been built by rising through district schools’ leadership ranks in the South, he has a decidedly traditional educational pedigree. His dissertation at East Carolina University argued that public-school-choice provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act didn’t improve student achievement. And on top of all that, he’s the head of a struggling urban school system that many argue has been hurt even more by a fast-growing charter sector.
But Ferebee shrugs off attempts to categorize him.
Soft-spoken with a Zen-like demeanor and eyes framed by tortoiseshell glasses, the 41-year-old superintendent of the Indianapolis school district has shown he plays aggressively by his own rulebook—one that includes robust partnerships with the city’s charter school leaders.
“There’s this idea that you have to be on one side or the other—you can’t wave both flags,” Ferebee says of district and charter schools.
“The more we encourage people to wave both flags, the more effective we will be in educating our children.”
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Like many urban districts, the Indianapolis school system has daunting challenges: It’s been losing enrollment for decades, leaving a concentrated population of low-income minority students within its borders, while passing rates on state assessments for the 2014-15 school year were not quite at 30 percent.
In its heyday in the late 1960s through early 1970s, the district boasted more than 100,000 students. Today, that number hovers just under 30,000.
And with the city’s and state’s embrace of charter schools and vouchers, competition for that shrinking pool of students is fierce. Currently, around 15,000 students attend charters in Indianapolis.
But rather than seeing charters as an enemy to fight off, Ferebee is enlisting them as allies. To stanch decades of enrollment loss and improve student outcomes, especially in the district’s worst-performing schools, he has asked a select few of the city’s charter school operators for help. Ferebee’s authority to do so stems from a new state law that he helped craft that has allowed the district to create “innovation network schools.”
Five charter groups have now signed up to be innovation network schools, and legislators expanded the law statewide last year. The district was also recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further promote district-charter collaboration.
Under the law, the district can either contract with an outside operator, including a charter-management organization, to take over the management of a failing school, or let a charter school operate out of an empty or under-used district school building. But the opportunity isn’t limited to charter operators. Almost anyone, including educators from regular Indianapolis schools, also can apply to run an innovation-network school.
Striking a Balance
Although innovation-network schools get charterlike autonomy—principals control matters such as the curriculum, and they’re free from union contracts—they still fall under the district’s umbrella. The schools are accountable to the school board, which can shut them down if they’re not meeting the terms of their contracts.
The district also provides crucial services that charters often struggle with, such as offering free transportation, finding and managing facilities, and providing special education. In exchange, the district counts enrollment numbers and student-test scores from the innovation-network schools as part of its overall data picture.
Ferebee has even leveraged the new law to bring a failing school that had been taken over by the state back into the district fold.
Even with his unusual embrace of charter leaders as a part of his strategy for repairing Indianapolis’ ailing public school system, Ferebee says he remains a believer in neighborhood schools. His goal, he says, is to strike a balance.
“The underpinning of giving students choice, it’s this idea that you’re not going to be cursed with a poor-performing school,” Ferebee says. “I think that’s a noble idea, but I think this plan that we have in Indianapolis is providing that option in the neighborhood.”
Of the five innovation-network schools, most serve students who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Sitting at his desk on a rainy autumn day, Ferebee types on his MacBook, both he and his laptop reflected on the varnished surface of his large desk. He’s just finished listening to members of his staff practice presentations they are scheduled to deliver that evening to the school board, and now he waits for a call from a superintendent in Florida who wants to ask about Ferebee’s experiences with a certain federal program.
Like his low-key manner and sleek way of dressing, Ferebee’s office is sparse and polished: His electronics are Apple products. The art on the walls is in black and white—all of it done by students. Directly behind his desk chair hangs an image of civil rights icon Rosa Parks on a bus.
Ferebee likes to tell people he’s part of the family business—both of his parents were educators. Both were the first in their families to go to college.
Even so, Ferebee’s parents encouraged him to pursue a different career path from their own—one that would make him more money. But as he closed in on finishing a degree in prepharmacy at North Carolina Central University, Ferebee found himself drawn more to the classroom he was volunteering in at a local school.
He called home and had what he described as his most emotionally charged conversation he’s ever had with this parents.
“They said if you’re going to do this, you have to have an obligation,” Ferebee recalls. “It’s almost like an oath was taken that day, that I’m committed to ensuring that all students get a high-quality education. It’s something that drives me on a daily basis.”
It’s a quality that Ferebee’s former boss in the Guilford County, N.C., school district said he recognized immediately in the then-principal. Terry Grier, the superintendent in Houston, who held the same position in Guilford County, says his other principals would complain about the hurdles their students faced—poverty, gangs, and a lack of positive role models—but not Ferebee. Grier remembers the first time he visited Ferebee’s school shortly after he became principal.
“I noticed at Lewis’ school that the visitor parking spaces were close to the front door—that’s normally where the principal and secretary park, but not at Lewis’ school,” says Grier, a 2015 Leader To Learn From.
“If I was trying to write a how-to book for young superintendents, I’d say model yourself off of Lewis Ferebee in Indianapolis.”
Although innovation-network schools arguably have been Ferebee’s most notable accomplishment in Indianapolis, other initiatives he has spearheaded have been focused as much on efficiency as collaboration.
Last year, in a cost-cutting effort, Ferebee laid off several administrative employees and created a single service-center hub that handles all calls, scheduling, and other clerical work. No one in the central office, including Ferebee, has his or her own secretary.
Even earlier in his tenure, after deciding to thoroughly review the district’s $338 million annual budget put together by his predecessor, Ferebee discovered that the budget improperly showed the district carrying a $30 million deficit when, in fact, there was a slight surplus.
That discovery helped underwrite a pay raise for the city’s teachers—their first in five years.
Although he’s cultivated many admirers in the local charter school and business communities, other groups are more ambivalent.
“By one token, the teachers are happy, they get a long-overdue raise,” says Rhondalyn Cornett, the president of the Indianapolis Teachers Association. But she’s uncomfortable with the innovation-network schools.
“I feel like that is privatizing education,” she says.
And some community members remain wary of Ferebee’s agenda for change, according to Amos Brown, a well-known radio host on Indianapolis’ local Radio One station, a broadcasting company geared to African-American audiences. Brown, who died late last year, often discussed local education issues on his show.
There’s this idea that you have to be on one side or the other. ... The more we encourage people to wave both flags, the more effective we will be in educating our children.
On the flip side, several leaders in the local charter school and business communites say they are thrilled by Ferebee’s willingness to collaborate and to slim down the central office.
His calm mien in the face of controversy is also an asset, they say.
Among them is David Harris, the founder and CEO of the Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization that supports the development of new charter schools and leaders in Indianapolis. The district has been working closely with the Mind Trust to recruit and train leaders for the innovation-network schools.
Recalling how Ferebee testified in front of the Indiana legislature while trying to get the bill passed to create innovation-network schools, Harris says the superintendent was “courageous.”
Because the new schools would be free from union contracts, Ferebee got a lot of pushback from teachers’ unions, Harris says.
“Their allies were pretty shrill with him on the floor. He was unflappable.”
Other charter school leaders have been impressed by Ferebee’s interest in visiting their schools and the new marching orders he gave his district principals—that they were all to start cooperating more with the charters.
Although Ferebee is the first to admit there is still competition between the two sectors, he doesn’t think that should stop them from sharing ideas and resources—all in the name of providing better instruction and savings.
That marks a sharp change in tone from previous superintendents, which local charter school founder Earl Phalen described as flat-out hostile to charter schools. Phalen is the CEO and founder of a charter school near downtown Indianapolis and the first charter school operator to take over a low-performing district school through the innovation-network school initiative.
At first Phalen balked at the idea—there was no road map, but plenty of pressure to get it right the first time. In the end, Ferebee persuaded him to take the plunge.
“We took the risk, because of my impression that this is somebody who I will follow and I will get my organization to follow,” he says. “Having a thoughtful leader who puts children first, it’s cliché; a lot of people say it but don’t do it. Ferebee walks the walk.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week