Uncategorized | June 21, 2013

Education in Indianapolis has 2 new strong reasons for hope

There are plenty of reasons to have hope in the idea that education in this city can be improved, transformed and ultimately saved. Two of them emerged recently.

The first came when Rocketship Education, the highly rated California-based charter schools organization, announced it had hired Steven Stolen to guide its entry into the Indianapolis education landscape. The group plans to open eight elementary schools to serve hard-hit neighborhoods between 2015 and 2020, an ambitious plan that will bring much-needed education choices to families in the city.

The hiring of Stolen is another example of the movement of high-quality leaders and individuals in Indianapolis to the cause of reforming schools here and giving the city’s children a better chance at success. A former professor and chair of the Butler University School of Music, Stolen has served the past several years as managing director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, strengthening the organization as he found new ways to integrate it into the community. He’s one of those guys about whom you simply never hear anything but praise.

Stolen probably could have called up any company in town and gotten a great job, or he could have kept the great theater job he has. But like many others he found himself eager to tackle the city’s greatest, most important challenge.

"Indy is in a crucible moment," Stolen told me. "There is such an influx of activity on the charter front. IPS has the opportunity to hire a new superintendent, someone who can bring people together and not keep them apart. If we all join together we might be able to turn the whole thing around and be the place that figured it out."

It’s truly become a movement, a cause. Stolen follows the many top young college graduates who have joined the Teach for America program, the many middle-aged professionals who have switched careers and entered the classroom, and so many other leaders who have financed or worked on education initiatives here in recent years. The trend was perfectly underscored recently by Kathy Davis, the highly respected former lieutenant governor who has applied for the IPS superintendent job, exciting many of us who believe she could be the transformational leader the district needs.

David Harris with The Mind Trust, the education group that is most responsible for the talent flooding into the city and its schools, called the moves by leaders such as Stolen and Davis "incredibly significant."

"We launched The Mind Trust to bring great education talent to Indianapolis," he told me in an email. "And now we are starting to see some of our very best local talent leaving other highly successful and highly visible careers to go into education reform."

It’s indeed significant, and a reason for hope.

Another reason came quietly out of an IPS board meeting earlier this week. After years of tension between district schools and charter schools, the IPS board made the smart and cooperative decision to lease a chunk of one of its schools to Enlace Academy, a Westside charter opening in August. The charter school will occupy most of the second floor of IPS’ Gambold Preparatory High School next semester as it finishes the renovation of its own building. It’s a win-win, as Gambold’s expected enrollment of 127 students this coming school year would otherwise leave the building underused.

The most important element of the story is that the district agreed to work with the charter school. That’s how it should be – every decision should be based on what’s best for students and not about turf wars, politics and funding. All that should matter is whether a school meets the needs of students and families. Wouldn’t it be great if this was a first step toward a better relationship among all of those involved in education in the city?

"IPS has done more good, hard work to get this done than I think a lot of people ever would have imagined," said Marty Dezelan, the chairman of Enlace’s board. "This really could be a way for them to demonstrate to the community that they are willing to do things differently."

Dezelan hopes to build more relationships between his school, which has ties to Cathedral High School, and Gambold, which IPS created to cater to students who attend high-performing feeder schools such as Sidener Academy. That cooperative concept fits perfectly into Stolen’s philosophy, which rejects the tired and unproductive idea that you have to "pick a team" when it comes to education initiatives.

"That’s not going to get us to where we need to be," he said.

He’s right. And, yes, there is definitely reason to have hope.