Opinion and Viewpoint

WHEELER: School transformation is making noise

August 20, 2011

Roderick WheelerSummer has traditionally been a break from academic endeavors. However, inthe Circle City, various education reforms, including plans by the Indiana Department of Education to intervene in management of seven low-performing schools,also are under discussion.

In business, changes in the marketplace drive decisions to turn around a poor-performing business unit, division or entire company.

Through my involvement with the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s College Readiness Initiative, I am well aware of the importance of a high-quality college-prep education.

Right here in Indianapolis, we have excellent examples of what is possible in public education.

Look, for example, at a charter school on the near-northeast side called KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory. I recently toured KIPP Indy, and was so impressed by the school’s culture of high expectations and emphasis on college readiness that I joined the school’s board.

But KIPP Indy’s outlook wasn’t always so rosy. The school started off with strong results when it opened in 2004. But by 2009, its achievement scores had fallen to some of the lowest in the state. With the school’s charter up for renewal in the fall of 2010, it was clear KIPP Indy had to improve to meet the national KIPP standard.

Going out of business was not acceptable. The school launched an 18-month effort that resulted in most students starting this year’s summer vacation with substantial academic growth and significantly improved ISTEP scores.

How did KIPP Indy achieve its goal? The school’s administration and board relied on three key strategies:

• It developed a plan to promote constant improvement. David Mann, a local entrepreneur, joined the KIPP Indy board as its chairman in February 2010 and immediately huddled with school administrators and teachers to develop a cohesive improvement plan. The board committed to holding all KIPP Indy staff accountable to high organizational goals and rewarded progress toward those goals.

• KIPP identified excellent school leaders, and gave them freedom to effect change. One of the board’s most crucial decisions was to promote Emily Pelino to school leader in 2010. Since taking the reins, Pelino has fostered a cohesive school culture with college readiness as its primary focus and ensured that her teachers were supported and held accountable for their students’ success.

Throughout the transition, the board supported Pelino and gave her autonomy to make decisions.

• KIPP also recruited and retained the best teachers. Talented teachers are the heart and soul of any school, and the KIPP Indy team took this to heart. In 2009, KIPP Indy hired eight Teach For America teachers who demonstrated outstanding results in their first year of teaching. These teachers brought an unwavering commitment to students and a fresh approach to classroom challenges.

Today, two-thirds of KIPP Indy’s staff, including Pelino and assistant school leader Aleesia Johnson, are Teach For America veterans.

By making these three elements a priority, KIPP Indy was able to achieve measurable results for its students. According to Pelino, it is too early to declare victory—the next step is making sure students have the skills to persist through college.

As schools start again, reforming public schools will remain a hot topic, along with the weather, and we would do well to keep stories like KIPP Indy’s in mind. With a firm plan for accountability, strong leadership and excellent teachers, it is possible to ensure that all students in Indianapolis are getting an excellent college-preparatory education.

While state intervention might not be music to everyone’s ears, improved student academic achievement should be a welcome sound to all.•

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Wheeler is a senior grants officer at Central Indiana Community Foundation, and serves as lead staff for CICF’s College Readiness and Success Initiative and the Summer Youth Program Fund. He was appointed to the KIPP Indy board of directors in May.

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