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Indianapolis Holds Contest for Innovative Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — June 06, 2014 5 min read
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Proposals for single-gender schools, boarding schools, year-round schools, and stem-focused schools were among those that rolled in last week as the deadline closed on an unusual competition to solicit innovative designs for creating a new crop of charter-like public schools in Indianapolis.

The city’s call for designs for “Innovation Network Schools” is aimed at stemming the exodus of students from the regular school system to charter schools, improving school quality for remaining students, and collaborating with outside groups to turn around low-performing schools.

Although part of the district, the new schools would be autonomous, much like some charter schools or schools in “innovation zones” or “achievement districts” operating in a handful of other big-city districts.

In the 30,000-student Indianapolis public school system, however, policymakers and education activists went about instituting such schools a bit differently by creating the Innovation School Fellowship. Spearheaded by the school system, the Mind Trust education nonprofit, and the office of Mayor Gregory A. Ballard, the competition invited talented individuals from the city and beyond to submit their best ideas to revamp the district’s failing schools.

Up to three fellows will be chosen to work on their designs over the next year, with the goal of running Innovation Network Schools in 2015.

The Mind Trust received 63 entries by the June 1 deadline. Applicants included teachers from the Indianapolis schools and neighboring districts and suburbs. Others came from Massachusetts, Georgia, and even China.

Applicants’ teaching experience spanned the globe, from Hawaii to Senegal. They included at least one retired superintendent, school founder, environmental engineer, college professor, former newspaper editor, former intelligence analyst from the U.S. Department of State, and businessperson.

Legal Roots

Indiana Public Law 1321 at a Glance

The new law, passed by state lawmakers in March, allows the Indianapolis Public Schools to enter into agreements with outside management organizations to create Innovation Network Schools.

Under the Law

  • The district will be able to close schools that received a state grade of D or F for three consecutive years—currently, that’s estimated to be 14 schools—and give those schools to Innovation Network Schools operators.
  • The school system can also enter into agreements with charter schools to utilize unused space in existing district buildings.
  • In all cases, the students in the Innovation Network Schools will be considered Indianapolis public school students, which means their test scores will be factored into state assessment results for the district.
  • Network schools will have full “operational autonomy,” with the ability to make all personnel decisions. The teachers will not be covered by the district’s collective bargaining agreement, though they may collectively organize and bargain on their own.

The Law Also Stipulates

  • The schools in the network will agree to performance goals and other accountability benchmarks as part of their agreements with the district. Those agreements can be terminated if the agreed-upon terms are not met.
  • The school management team will get the use of the building, the building’s supplies, maintenance, repairs, and transportation for students.
  • Network schools cannot refuse to enroll a child who lives in the attendance area.
  • No more than 10 percent of eligible schools can be converted to Innovation Network Schools in the first year.

SOURCES: Indiana Public Law 1321; Mind Trust

Indianapolis officials were empowered to launch the open call for talent by Public Law 1321, a measure approved by the Indiana legislature this year. It gives the Indianapolis public schools the authority to create Innovation Network Schools by entering into agreements with management teams that will take over and run chronically failing schools.

Under the law, the district can also make pacts with charter operators, who will be allowed to use empty or underutilized space in district buildings.

One of the law’s hallmarks—the part that gets both supporters and detractors excited, but for different reasons—is that the new schools will not be bound by the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union.

And, while the leaders will have full autonomy over their schools, they must meet certain benchmarks set by the school board, or face closure.

“I think [the law] gives IPs the freedom and flexibility to turn around some of its lowest-performing schools by working in a collaborative way with charter management organizations,” said Jason Kloth, the city’s deputy mayor for education.

David Harris, a co-founder and the CEO of the Mind Trust, the local education improvement group involved in developing the fellowship, said: “This combines the best of both the charter sector and the district sector—the autonomy and freedom that charters have, [and] the resources the districts can bring to schools.”

State Rep. Robert Behning, the chairman of the Indiana House of Representatives’ education committee, who worked on the bill, said that, facing potential obsolescence, it was imperative for the district to begin to make significant changes.

“If we did nothing, IPs would have fewer students in them than the charter schools in the community would have,” said Mr. Behning, a Republican.

Some experts are hailing the law as a model in charting a new course for how urban districts and charter schools can collaborate, and share resources and taxpayers’ dollars.

Paul Hill, the founder of the Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education with the University of Washington Bothell, who studies districts that follow a “portfolio” model of school options, said the Indianapolis law could become “an exemplar” of how to engender collaboration between districts and charters, a relationship that’s often fraught with acrimony.

“This gives the district, really, the authority to deal with potential providers and set priorities and say, ‘here is a place we really need a school, here is a group of kids that really needs a school,’” Mr. Hill said.

The state’s two largest teachers’ unions opposed the law, likening it to a state takeover of local schools and a measure that further erodes teachers’ rights.

“I don’t think there was much in this law that the school board couldn’t have done on its own,” said Teresa Meredith, the president of the Indiana State Teachers’ Association.

“It’s purely an experiment—and we hope it’s successful because we are experimenting with kids’ futures,” she said, “but, at the same time, we are experimenting with adults’ futures as well, in that these folks are dedicated public employees and we’d like to be able to say to them, if the program doesn’t work” they will be welcomed into other district schools.

Incubation Period

The number of charter schools within the school system’s boundaries has grown from 12 in 2001, when the state granted the Indianapolis mayor the right to authorize them, to 37 today, according to the mayor’s office of education innovation.

A selection committee, including Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and other district representatives, along with a mayoral representative, will whittle down the candidates. A decision on the fellows will be made later this month by the Mind Trust, but the district will have the final say.

The successful fellows will receive salary and benefits worth about $129,000, and will spend the next year at the Mind Trust, “incubating” their designs and learning about school operations and finance.

“One of the things we have learned from the charter world is that time to develop your idea, time to plan a reform model, is a critical part of success,” Mr. Ferebee said, “and so we wanted to establish something similar for teachers who had great ideas, who always wanted to transform our struggling schools, or maybe some other educators, or some nontraditional community members. ... We are looking for the most innovative and creative ideas to transform our schools that have been poor-performing for a while.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as Indianapolis District Hosts Contest for Innovative Schools

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