A new reform majority on the Indianapolis School Board is poised to make significant changes in the low-performing Indiana school district.
In several close races, voters elected newcomers Gayle Cosby, a Lawrence Township teacher; Caitlin Hannon, a former IPS teacher; and businessman Sam Odle to the board in November, while reelecting incumbent Diane Arnold.
“The biggest thing that we have as a board to do now, and probably in some ways the hardest, is to develop among ourselves and with stakeholders in the community what success will really look like,” Hannon said. “Change for the sake of change isn’t going to get us anywhere. Right now we don’t have enough kids graduating or have enough school choice options in the community.”
Approximately 70 percent of Indiana school districts perform better in math and reading than Indianapolis, according to the Global Report Card. Forty-two percent of students drop out of IPS. In 2012, the state took over four IPS schools because of persistent poor performance.
The new board members campaigned on several reform ideas in a report released in December 2011 by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis reform organization. The report sparked interest among parents and created election momentum, said Larry Grau, Indiana DFER state director.
“People saw what was possible in the school district, and it added a new dynamic to the elections,” Grau said. “People were looking for candidates who were open to new ideas and who were campaigning on the promise to bring change.”
Indiana Democrats for Education Reform endorsed three incumbents: Arnold, Cosby, and Hannon. Cosby said her experience as an IPS graduate, parent, and teacher worked in her favor.
“The public awareness of failing test scores and the recent loss of four schools to state takeover spurred an interest in electing candidates who are reform-minded,” Cosby said.
Bloated Central Office
School autonomy and improving pre-K education are top recommendations from The Mind Trust report. Hannon and Cosby named these top priorities in their campaigns.
“Increased school autonomy” would allow “administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community stakeholders to make decisions about what is best for their school and their students,” Cosby said.
IPS’s central office is needlessly large, expensive, and overbearing, said Mind Trust CEO David Harris. Attracting school leaders, extending school time, and allocating better resources to schools are key to improvement, he said.
A bloated administration is a common school district problem, and IPS is no different, Grau said.
“You have state and federal programs introduced, and the schools see the advantages of bringing those programs to the schools,” Grau said. “Those come with administrators, and they don’t go away when the programs go away, and you continue to pay for those administrations.”
The district’s layers of bureaucracy require “structural changes,” he said.
“IPS has done a very good job of training and growing leaders at the building level,” Grau said. “One way to send that off is to create a more autonomous environment where those administrators are able to lead. We need to have a board that focuses on not getting in the way of success.”
Follow-Through for Pre-K
Central office cutbacks could provide more funding for pre-kindergarten education, which is particularly important for poor and minority children, Harris and Cosby said. Research shows poor and minority children on average hear far fewer words than do those in middle-income families. This creates an early verbal gap that often never closes, and verbal ability is crucial to education.
“Pre-K is a means to become proactive in increasing achievement and closing gaps in achievement due to socioeconomic status and race,” Cosby said.
Even a billion new preschools won’t help children succeed if the city doesn’t first improve K-12 education, Hannon said, because even if preschool benefits children the benefits dissipate in later grades.
School Choice Momentum
“Like most states, we have charter schools that run the gamut in Indiana,” Grau said. “The board needs to be very open to what’s the best school model for the community that a particular building is going to serve. I think implied in the autonomy is school choice options. I don’t know if vouchers have been utilized to the degree they can be to provide opportunities for children and their families.”
Indianans tend to like magnet and charter schools, Grau said. Magnet schools offer specialized programs for gifted youngsters, such as a math and science focus, and charter schools are independently run public schools.
“Charter schools, by virtue of their design, have those attributes that we think successful schools have,” Harris said. “They’re clearly going to play an important role, but there’s no reason that district schools couldn’t be structured in that way.”
Cosby said her goal is to strengthen IPS so parents willingly choose to enroll their children there.
“It is every parent’s right to choose the educational option that is best suited to their child’s individual learning needs,” she said.
Hannon said she hopes the new board members can make “dramatic structural change” in their first six months on the job.
“I would like to see us on a very different page for the 2013-2014 school year,” she said.
The new board members are set to be sworn in Jan. 7.
“Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform Indianapolis Public Schools,” The Mind Trust, December 2011: http://www.themindtrust.org/files/file/opp-schools-full-report.pdf.
Image by Rob Annis.