Local | April 23, 2014

IPS, Mind Trust propose fellowships to fix failing schools

Indianapolis Public Schools is betting on an innovative plan – offer creative educators individual fellowships to develop new curricula to fix failing schools.

Mayor Greg Ballard and The Mind Trust are joining the school district in supporting what they say is the first fellowship of its kind in the country. It was announced at the IPS School Board meeting Tuesday night.

Here are the basics: Up to nine teachers will be offered a year fellowship of $100,000 each – as well as $29,000 in benefits and the use of Mind Trust office space – to, in effect, launch new schools to turn around nine failing IPS schools.

The Mind Trust, an educational reform organization, will make those fellowships available to teachers worldwide, but the district’s teachers also will be encouraged to apply.

The program takes advantage of a new state law that allows IPS to create autonomous schools not bound by collective bargaining laws to improve student achievement at struggling or underused schools.

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee hopes to have nine currently failing schools operating under new and innovative curriculum models by 2017-18. The first three are expected to be up and running under the new fellow-designed curricula by 2015-16.

Among other innovations, those schools could be flexible in teacher pay, operate for longer hours per day and offer more than 180 days of class instruction time per year, Ferebee has said.

"This model is really geared toward our neighborhood schools," he said.

"Typically what we have done really well in Indianapolis is (offer) choice with charters and magnets. But this particular model with (House Bill) 1321, we would like the transformation to occur in a neighborhood school. We don’t want any student to have to move or go to another school; we want you to be able to attend your neighborhood school."

The Mind Trust will cover the more than $1.1 million cost of the program through fundraising, said David Harris, CEO of the organization.

Harris said funding has been raised for two positions, and he will continue seeking money from foundations, grants and other sources to cover the nine positions over three years.

Harris said the fellowship also will offer the educators a year and resources to build and launch a new school.

"One of the absolute keys to getting great schools started is making sure leaders who are launching these new schools have that upfront time to really do that planning," Harris said. "We think our fellowship combined with the resources the district can bring … (a) nationally unique opportunity to create great schools within the district.

"I think this is a historic opportunity for IPS," he said.

Applicants’ statements of intent are due May 15, and final applications are due June 1. Two or three winners will be selected in July. More information is available at www.themindtrust.org.

The Mind Trust, Ferebee, IPS board, community members and national experts will be part of the fellow selection for the fellows.

After the fellows complete designing the new curriculum, the IPS school board will have final say if the model will be adopted.

Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association, said she was surprised to hear about the program for the first time Tuesday night and would like assurance that IPS teachers or principals would be selected over applicants from across the country.

Under the new law, IPS can contract with outside companies or management teams to run 14 failing schools – those graded D or F for the past three years – or struggling underused schools, as well as share IPS resources, such as transportation.

During the legislative session, some lawmakers and educators criticized Ferebee for his willingness to work with charter schools.

Yet Ferebee, who has said he wants all options on the table to improve IPS, said he doesn’t want to rely solely on established models or charter schools contracted under the law. Fellowships, he said, are one alternative.

Providing more autonomy to schools is not a new idea at IPS. Two schools follow an innovative program called Project Restore that was developed by two former School 99 teachers. The schools, which under the program have limited freedom to decide curriculum and staff assignments, have been praised by Ferebee as models that could be replicated.

Call Star reporter Eric Weddle at (317) 444-6222. Follow him on Twitter: @ericweddle.