Local | October 10, 2012

Matthew Tully: The Mind Trust continues to be dynamic force for education reform

Amid all the debate over education reform – amid sometimes overheated rhetoric from supporters and critics alike – The Mind Trust just keeps moving forward in its thoughtful and groundbreaking style.

And that’s a great thing for Indianapolis.

The group, which has singlehandedly changed the tenor of the debate surrounding the city’s schools and brought an army of education talent to Indianapolis in recent years, announced in 2011 that it was kick-starting a two-year, $18 million "Grow What Works" fundraising campaign. The money would enable The Mind Trust to provide more support for a number of important education organizations and entrepreneurs and fund an incubator that backs high-quality charter schools.

Not surprisingly, The Mind Trust has exceeded its $18 million goal, and done so well ahead of schedule. From Eli Lilly and Co. to individual donors, and from city government to nonprofit foundations, support for the campaign arrived quickly. As such, The Mind Trust is set to announce that the capital-raising portion of the campaign is complete.

"There’s just a real hunger in the community for this type of work," Mind Trust CEO David Harris said, "and there’s a hunger to see investment in programs that are really driving change and producing results."

The supportive response to the campaign is what happens to an organization that has done what might have seemed impossible not so long ago: convinced people that while it won’t be easy or fast, the potential to turn around an urban center’s struggling education system is real. Getting people to believe that, despite all the challenges standing in the way and despite the naysayers, truly is an important step.

But it’s easier to believe when you spend any time around the programs and individuals Harris’ organization has lured to the city.

There’s College Summit, a class embedded in low-income schools that has broadened the minds of students who previously might not have considered college a realistic chapter of their life stories. There’s Summer Advantage, run by larger-than-life educator Earl Martin Phalen, which has shown that children of poverty don’t have to suffer from an achievement gap. There’s Teach for America, which has sent some of the nation’s brightest college graduates into schools that desperately need them. And there’s a general feeling that Indianapolis is now a place where leading education minds and dynamic ideas are embraced.

None of this is a magic bullet; there simply isn’t one when it comes to the massive, sometimes mind-boggling challenges facing struggling schools. But while cities such as Chicago are confronted with nasty strikes, the question in Indianapolis has become: How far can we go?

"If you look at where Indianapolis is today compared to six years ago, we’re not just in a better position – we’re in an infinitely better position," Harris said. "We’re seen as one of the few cities in the country that is well-positioned for big and fundamental change."

For that to happen, of course, the city must not slow down. It must find a way to address the contentious issues that can easily divide the community, and it must make clear that those teachers who walk into the city’s schools and work hard every day deserve cheers and support. It also must make sure the community is engaged, and that’s why The Mind Trust’s campaign is helping to finance Stand for Children, a group that aims to get more parents and families involved in the critical education debates that often have been dominated by insiders.

For The Mind Trust, it’s important that it not get caught up in the often-silly sideshow debates over education reform. It has received a few cheap shots from reform critics, particularly in the months since it released a proposal on how to overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools. That report is full of provocative ideas, such as switching power and resources from the central office to where they belong: the schools.

The fate of that idea and others could be shaped by the upcoming IPS board elections. As those shake out, The Mind Trust keeps moving forward.

Next up is its effort to fill the city with new charter schools, but only the best of them. Its incubator will provide grants to top-notch teams from across the country, giving them the resources needed to develop and open great schools with the goal of eventually replicating them.

"We need to raise our bar and only invest in the very best," Harris said. "And along the way, we have to close charters that aren’t working."

The city is fortunate to have The Mind Trust. And, fortunately, six years after it was founded, The Mind Trust isn’t slowing down.