Eugene White is a towering man with an outsized personality to match. When he took the helm of the troubled Indianapolis Public Schools seven years ago, he seemed to have the confidence and determination to steamroll through the changes the district badly needed.
As he departs, no one can declare his tenure a clear success or failure.
Among his achievements was the proliferation of magnet schools that helped retain the children of professionals who for decades had been flocking to the suburbs.
The record is more mixed for the city’s most impoverished children, many of whom, because of complicated family lives, enter first grade already on a path to failure.
We’re disappointed that the school board this month backed away from what could have been one of White’s most important legacies, a plan to enroll 1,400 4-year-olds in free preschool—giving kids most at risk a crucial, early leg up.
It was just the kind of innovative thinking the district needed.
But unfortunately, White in many ways seemed too status quo, maintaining much of the district’s massive bureaucracy—sucking up resources that would be better deployed in classrooms—and reacting defensively to reform initiatives, including the proliferation of charters.
Some of that is understandable. It’s too early to know whether many of the initiatives former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett championed actually will improve student performance.
And while many students who live within the IPS boundaries have benefited from having new options on where to attend school, the flight of students has exacerbated the district’s management and financial challenges.
To be sure, it takes a unique educator to run a large urban school district like IPS. Every decision can’t be the product of consensus-building and negotiation. So having a strong-willed leader at the helm is essential. But too often, especially in recent years, White’s self-certainty seemed to cross the line into arrogance and bullheadedness.
The good news is that White’s departure appears to set the stage for the broader changes we once hoped he would champion. A strong roster of new board members, including retired Indiana University Health executive Sam Odle, is poised to aggressively push reforms.
And White’s exit likely will give additional momentum to The Mind Trust’s ambitious plan, unveiled in December 2011, to blow up the bureaucracy and transform the district into a network of autonomous “opportunity” schools.•
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