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Commentary: White deserves praise and support

October 13, 2008

Chris Katterjohn has the week off. In his absence, this column, which appeared on Oct. 2, 2006, is being reprinted.

It's been a little more than a year since Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White took over the job of battling the flames at IPS.

We should all be grateful he did. He is a special man.

"It was like going into a burning house," White told a group of business leaders at a recent breakfast. "I don't know too many people who'd want to walk into that particular house." Count me as one who wouldn't. For starters, you'd be dealing with the IPS dropout rate, one of the highest in the nation-higher than Philadelphia, New York or Boston-according to White. One in five IPS males doesn't graduate.

You'd also be dealing with less-thanideal family situations. Nearly three-quarters of IPS students come from single-parent households, according to 2005-2006 statistics on the district's Web site.

Couple those and other scary numbers with the rebellious and anti-authority mind-set of today's urban youth, mix it in with a media culture that seems to glorify that attitude, and you've got a recipe for a Mount Everest-type challenge.

The good news for us is that White seems to have been born for the job and up to the task. And, he has a passion for it.

To the first point, he was born in Phenix City, Ala., to a single, 17-year-old mother and was the first person in his family to graduate from high school, where he excelled in sports. He says his mother, grandmother and coaches influenced him greatly.

He went to Alabama A&M University on a basketball scholarship and graduated with academic honors.

Before coming to Indianapolis, he was a teacher, coach and school administrator in Fort Wayne Community Schools for 19 years. Before becoming top dog at IPS, he was superintendent of Washington Township schools for 11 years.

In other words, he can relate to today's inner-city youth and set an example of someone who has risen above disadvantaged circumstances to become successful. He has what is known as "street cred."

Each time I see him, I'm more impressed and more grateful that this man-who could probably write his own ticket to any school district in the country-has chosen Indianapolis.

His imposing physical stature-he's got to be 6 feet, 5 inches and 230 pounds-is coupled with a steady gaze and an aura of conviction that demands your attention and inspires respect. But it's his sincerity that immediately wins you over. And, like many great leaders, his messages are simple, straightforward and clear.

"We must have a culture change at IPS," White says of his primary goal. He has a list of 10 imperatives designed to be the foundation of that change.

Also like any good leader, he has a detailed strategy for the 2006-2007 school year, complete with goals, objectives, activities and assessment tools. Simply put, the goals are: change the culture, implement customer service, measure everyone's performance based on the strategy, and improve school board governance.

Under the first goal, two of his biggest projects will be coming up with a dropout prevention plan and implementing a dress code (no more low-slung pants?). Both of those items will be developed during this school year and presented to the board for approval next June.

Those will be two big mountains to climb, but White seems to have all the gear to reach the summit. He's certainly got my vote.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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