Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White isn't subtle. After wrapping up his second year as head of the
state's largest school district last summer, he adopted the Buffalo Springfield classic with the lyrics, "There's
something happening here" as his theme song, and began blasting it through loudspeakers at teacher gatherings.
The clear message: He's hellbent on reversing the long decline of the state's largest school district. The status quo is not an option. "I said all along this third year would be the year of my revolution at IPS," White said. The 6-foot-4-inch White has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He left the top job in Washington Township Schools, where he was popular, in part because he saw so much to fix in the 37,000-student IPS. At the top of the list: abysmal graduation rates and plunging enrollment. About 1,000 students are leaving IPS each year.
White's list of initiatives since assuming command in July 2005 is long and far-reaching. His three areas of focus: "How we look, how we act, and how we teach and learn." He's rolled out a strict new dress code, tougher discipline, smaller high schools, more magnet schools and a longer school year for underperforming middle schools.
And as if those changes aren't enough, White this fall announced a major redistricting plan that calls for closing eight of the district's 80 schools.
White's moves aren't universally lauded. Some teachers call the rapid-fire changes disruptive, and say keeping tabs on them gets in the way of teaching. They also complain that the superintendent makes changes without consulting them first.
But critics and supporters alike praise his determination to make the district better. And they agree the stakes are huge.
The district's "success has an impact on the quality of life for these students, most importantly, but also the economic development and perceptions of the city and that of the population of the district," said Mayor Bart Peterson, who considers himself a White ally.
White's been there
White believes the key to turning around IPS is expecting more from students and faculty.
He knows all about exceeding expectations. He grew up in poverty in segregated Alabama, the son of a single mother who cleaned houses. White was the first male in his family to graduate from high school.
"I was once a kid just like these kids," said White, who turns 60 this month. "There are no promises in life, but we owe it to our young people to give them the opportunity to make their lives good. If we don't help these kids today, we'll pay for it later. There's nothing better to lift people out of poverty than an education."
White, who holds graduate education degrees from Ball State University, was the first black principal at Wayne High School in northern Indiana, and later the first black principal at Washington Township's North Central. He served as deputy superintendent for IPS before returning to Washington Township as superintendent in 1993.
He wasn't reluctant to take on tough issues in that district, either. In 2002, he called all of North Central's black males into a special convocation, where he reprimanded them for their underperformance and challenged them to do better. In 2005, he called Gov. Mitch Daniels a "liar" for saying school districts were putting school buildings ahead of learning. White later apologized.
"He does have a strong personality. He says it like it is, and sometimes people don't like that. But you didn't have to guess where he was coming from," said Lori Schlabach, who's been a Washington Township school board member for four years and helped select White's successor. "What I've heard over and over is, we were really sad to see him go, but if anyone can help IPS, it's Dr. White."
White, who in October was named superintendent of the year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators, inherited a district that has seen enrollment fall for three decades. Enrollment today is half what it was in 1975. In just the past decade, IPS has lost 7,000 students.
In part, the decline reflects the same suburban migration that has hurt urban school districts across the nation. Many families with the financial wherewithal to move from IPS to suburban Marion County or collar counties have done so, or have opted for private or parochial schools. Many of the students who remain are impoverished, a strong predictor of academic underperformance. Eighty-three percent of IPS students participate in the free or reduced-lunch programs, 11 times the percentage participating in Fishers' widely praised Hamilton Southeastern school district.
The proliferation of charter schools in Indianapolis has accelerated the enrollment losses. Mayor Peterson has authorized 16 charters since the Indiana General Assembly granted him that power in 2001. Enrollment in those schools has swelled to 4,500. During the same span, IPS lost 4,260 students.
Peterson makes no apologies.
"I'm a big believer that, just as there are choices within IPS, there needs to be options within the broader public school system and that's what the charter school system represents," he said.
White knows he's losing students to charter schools, but said he isn't worried.
"I'm not afraid of competition," he said, believing IPS will be able to stem the losses as it improves. For now, his focus is helping the students succeed who remain in the district.
There's plenty of work to be done on that front. A recent analysis by Johns Hopkins for the Associated Press labeled all five of IPS' traditional grades 9-12 high schools as "dropout factories," with less than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen making it to their senior year.
The White agenda
A new discipline initiative White launched this fall is intended to help reverse the dropout trend.
Previously, individual IPS schools were largely on their own handling students who struggled or refused to conform to district rules. Often, schools ended up expelling troubled students, or they'd drop out on their own. Now, if a student underperforms at one IPS school, a mediator employed by the district finds another where the student can get a fresh start and is more likely to succeed.
One of White's first moves as superintendent was to take a hard line on discipline to give teachers more control over their classrooms. This fall, to further reduce distractions in the classroom that get in the way of learning, the district rolled out a dress code that generally requires students to wear solid-colored shirts and tan, black or navy pants or skirts.
"It's all about perception," White said. "If they feel they look more professional, they'll behave that way."
White also has overhauled the district's sports programs, cutting foundering teams to focus resources on programs where teams can be competitive.
The superintendent said sports are crucial to creating well-rounded students, but not if teams lack the financial support and participation levels needed to have a shot at winning.
This fall, he unleashed his most sweeping changes. As part of a redistricting plan that closes eight schools, White proposed three each of three kinds of high schools--citywide magnet schools focusing on areas like technology and medicine, "community" high schools that are expected to develop close ties to surrounding neighborhoods, and traditional high schools. The magnet schools and community high schools will be grades 7-12, an approach White believes will make students' transition to high school less jarring.
The plan, approved by the school board Nov. 27, is intended to boost the chances of students' succeeding in the face of daunting obstacles, White said.
"It's a different world today," he said. "When I was young, I wasn't around hiphop, songs about killing, that kind of thing. Young people here aren't even in the game."
It's too early for White to have amassed a wealth of evidence that his approach is working, but education experts think he's on the right track.
"His report card is mixed since the initiatives are new," said Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at the Center for the Evaluation of Education Policy at Indiana University. But most of what White is trying here has been tried elsewhere, he said. "Research shows these things should work."
Some parents say they already see positive signs.
Kathy Davis, a former Indiana lieutenant governor who now is CEO of South Bend-based Global Access Point, said her seventh-grade daughter finds school "awesome" with the new dress code and stricter discipline.
"When I asked her, 'Why is school awesome?' she says the kids are acting better," said Davis, who lives downtown. "It has made a huge difference in how Mollie perceives school."
Another parent, Janet Allen, artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre, agrees the district is on the upswing.
"We're among a growing number of disgruntled parents who are tired of the rest of the community speaking in a deprecatory manner about IPS," said Allen, whose two daughters attend the downtown Center for Inquiry, an IPS magnet school. "We're very pleased with the work that Dr. White is doing. It moves the onus to parents and kids."
And despite White's forceful leadership style, he seems to welcome input from parents, said Steve Albrecht, father of two students at Rousseau McClellan School 91, a Montessori school.
After Albrecht wrote White a letter expressing concern that the redistricting plan would change the boundaries for his children, White called him at home. The superintendent ultimately decided not to change boundaries for Montessori schools.
"I was surprised he responded to one parent who wrote one letter, but he did," Albrecht said. "It shows he's not at all of the ilk, 'My way or the highway.'"
Teachers also praise many of White's initiatives. But some believe he's piling on too many, too fast.
"Each one individually is probably a great idea, but there are so many of them," said Alan Norris, a veteran math teacher at Arlington High School. "A perfect example is the dress code. It's a great idea. But each day a new modification comes out for weather, etc. Who has time to check all this and keep it in your mind? And you know, we want to teach once in a while."
The pressure that White is placing on administrators to show improvement also appears to be taking a toll. The Indianapolis Education Association, the teachers' union, told the school board this month that teacher morale was sinking, in part because some administrators have been threatening and intimidating faculty.
Alene Smith, who teaches advanced placement classes at Emmerich Manual High School, said one of her complaints is that the superintendent launches initiatives without getting teacher input.
"Dr. White has some very sound ideas educationally," she said. "But he needs to include his teachers and teacher leaders in that decision-making process when ironing out his plans."
For example, she thinks the ban on cheering that White imposed at last spring's graduation ceremonies was misguided. He made the change to bring decorum to the ceremonies. But some parents refused to comply and were kicked out.
"Everything right is not popular," White countered, frustrated that the spotlight too often is shined on what's wrong with IPS, not what's right.
It's the kind of statement White has made a lot since taking the district's reins. The take-charge superintendent was drawn to the district because he yearned to fix it. Butting heads from time to time goes with the territory.
It's a struggle White easily could have sidestepped, choosing instead to spend the rest of his career in comparatively tranquil Washington Township. Supporters are thankful that's not White's way.
"Everyone criticizes IPS, but few are willing to step up to help," said Olgen Williams, an at-large school board member and executive director for Christamore House Family and Community Center. "IPS has been a challenge for decades, but Dr. White was willing to take on this challenge. You can't turn this ship on a dime. He's got to make some wide swings to turn the ship around."