Local | May 15, 2014

Tully: Talented principal leaving Pike Township to open charter school

There is a common dream that connects many of the best educators I’ve met over the years. It centers on a desire to create from scratch a new school, to put their own stamp on education while having the ability to build teams free of divisions and distractions, and bonded by an almost obsessive student-focused vision.

“I think you can follow someone else’s way, and someone else’s vision, to a point,” Mariama Carson said. “But at some point you want to go off and do it on your own, to do it your own way and to execute your own vision.”

A longtime educator in Pike Township Schools, Carson is wrapping up her final year as principal at Snacks Crossing Elementary, a school that has overcome many of the challenges of poverty during her five years as boss. Once the school year ends, Carson will begin a two-year process of building her own K-8 charter school, one that will offer disadvantaged students the type of foreign language immersion program popular at many private schools.

“I want the school to be a place where language barriers are broken down and hearts are opened up,” Carson said of the school, which will immerse students in Spanish. “I want to give kids in need the type of opportunity they might not otherwise have – the opportunity to, really, navigate two worlds. Because when you can speak a language you can understand a culture.”

Carson, 39, wants to offer students that opportunity in a school, scheduled to open in 2016, where every classroom is filled with teachers who share a common goal and who keep often-bitter debates over education policy out of the building. She wants to build a school that focuses most energy on the students who need the most help. She wants the ability to rid her school quickly of teachers who can’t live by that ethos, and she has been frustrated with the rules that make that a monumental feat in traditional public schools. She talks passionately about the spirit of collaboration and high expectations that will fill her school.

A 2004 recipient of the Milken Educator Award, one of the nation’s most prestigious teaching awards, Carson wants to lead a school in which every teacher will look at the tremendous challenges of educating the most disadvantaged students and “know that they have to, and they can, find a way to overcome them.”

The Mind Trust, a local education nonprofit that supports innovative education programs and leaders, today will announce that Carson is the latest recipient, and the first from Indiana, of its Education Entrepreneur Fellowship. The two-year, $250,000 fellowship provides a salary, stipend and support to educators looking to create new programs in Indianapolis. Carson will use the fellowship to launch her charter school, a task that involves everything from securing a building and hiring teachers to recruiting a board and attracting students. It’s a daunting task made easier by the long reach of The Mind Trust.

Of course, anything related to education reform these days offers room for controversy, and charters have served as a point of division. This particular move, of an education leader from a traditional school to a charter, will likely generate additional scrutiny because Carson is the wife of Democratic U.S. Rep. Andre Carson.

Rep. Carson has viewed education reform with skepticism, but he said his wife’s move should serve as a reminder that district and charter schools “can take cues from each other” and “learn from each other.” He said what is most important is that more great educators are given the flexibility that charters provide and that schools continue to find new and better ways to serve the different needs of children and families.

“Most of all,” he said. “I’m just proud of my wife.”

Mariama Carson said she at one point shared the “us-versus-them” sentiment that has divided many in the traditional public school system from those in charter schools, which are public schools but generally not covered by collective bargaining. Many critics argue that charters rob district schools of students and funding.

“But if you’re not serving the child you should lose them,” Carson said. “It works that way in every other field. I shifted in my thinking after becoming a parent myself. I realized if I didn’t like the school my daughter attended I would be able to move her somewhere else. Well, if what is right for me is choice, then what’s right for everyone is choice.”

Carson decided on a Spanish-language immersion school after struggling to communicate with many of the parents in her current school, where roughly a fifth of the students speak English as a second language. To build better relationships with families, she has traveled to Mexico repeatedly for summer immersion programs. It’s led to stronger bonds with many students and parents, she said. In this increasingly diverse city, she hopes her charter school can bring people of different cultures together while also instilling a valuable skill in her students.

The Mind Trust selected Carson in large part because of her track record: ISTEP scores at Snacks Crossing have increased by 22 percentage points in the past five years, reading scores have consistently improved, and the school’s state-issued grade has improved from a D to a B. She has developed a reputation for pushing teachers hard, working with disadvantaged students and building connections with families. “First and foremost,” Mind Trust CEO David Harris said. “We invest in people and we invest in talent, and she is a great talent.”

There are undoubtedly easier career moves Carson could make. But she looks at children of poverty and says the challenges they face are her mission. She laughed as she recounted telling her principals during her early teaching days to “send me the tough kids, the kids other teachers don’t want. Those are the ones I love to serve.”

She appreciated a challenge back then, and she is now welcoming a new one. Her new adventure is a reminder that despite all of the debates over education reform, the movement is actually providing both students and educators with more opportunities than ever.

You can reach me at matthew.tully@indystar.com or on Twitter @matthewltully.