Flexibility eases pain of principal’s departure

Just two months into an ambitious overhaul, Indianapolis Metropolitan High School lost one of the key architects of its reforms.

Indy Met’s principal, Carlotta Cooprider, resigned Feb. 28 over what she described as “philosophical differences” with school Superintendent Scott Bess.

Her abrupt departure had the potential to deal a major blow to the 430-student charter school, given that its culture is built on personal relationships and Cooprider is a dynamic leader.

Cooprider Cooprider

But change isn’t unusual at Indy Met, and the transition was mostly seamless, according to school administrators, parents and students. In fact, experts say the way the school dealt with the departure of a key figure highlights both the benefits and challenges of charters—publicly funded schools that operate outside the structure of traditional school districts.

Cooprider, who had been at Indy Met about four years, took over as principal at the beginning of this school year. She had asked Bess for oversight of staff such as special education teachers and college/career coaches. Those staffers now report to their own department leaders, who report to Bess, and he wanted to keep it that way.

A 20-year-plus veteran of education, Cooprider declined to be interviewed for this story because she signed a confidentiality agreement with the school. (Prior to her departure, she did speak with IBJ about her background and the sweeping changes instituted at the school. Excerpts from that conversation appear in the video below.)

The day after she left, an Indy Met dean, Tarek Zawahri, was named interim principal. A special education teacher, Jonathan Gates, stepped into the dean role and kept some teaching responsibilities. Other special ed teachers then rearranged their schedules to fill in the gap.

The staff announced the changes to students and parents immediately.

Some experts say the speed with which the positions were filled and the teachers’ ability to adapt their schedules demonstrates the flexibility that is a charter hallmark.

It certainly made the transition easier.

“In a traditional public school, there would be job postings … a personnel process,” said David Dresslar, executive director of the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning and a longtime observer of both types of schools. “A traditional public school is much less nimble at making those kinds of adjustments. That’s one of the advantages charter schools have—they don’t have those same kinds of procedures.”

That flexibility—in part due to freedom from teachers’ union collective bargaining agreements—also helps make up for the challenges charters can face in such a scenario: Unlike traditional public schools, which typically can draw from staff across a corporation that includes multiple schools, charters—especially small ones—don’t have a deep bench of personnel. That makes it more likely that they will have to hire outsiders, who have a learning curve of their own.

“When you have a K-through-12 flavor, you can do more shifting to find everyone’s niche,” said Steve Baker, president of the Indiana Association of School Principals and principal at Bluffton High School near Fort Wayne. “If you just have grades nine through 12, sometimes you’re on an island.”

At the end of the year, Bess said, school leaders and the new administrators will evaluate whether they should stay in the positions or hire from the outside. The goal in promoting existing staff members was to provide a sense of stability.

“From a student perspective, we didn’t want to throw another change at them,” Bess said.

The students saw their school transformed earlier this year, when Indy Met leaders ditched its model of dividing students by grade level and assigning them a primary teacher with whom they spent most of the day. They introduced a more traditional system that includes changing classes and mixing students of various grades—with the intent of strengthening academics and better preparing students for what comes after graduation.

That’s not to say students and parents haven’t felt Cooprider’s absence. Most staffers at Indy Met develop close relationships with students and, in some cases, their families.

That was particularly true with Cooprider, who was principal of the current junior class when Indy Met operated separate schools for each grade level.

Tiffany Montgomery, whose son, Deiondre Bankhead, was in Cooprider’s school, recalls the principal calling her to ask how things were going when Montgomery was dealing with family difficulties.

Junior Makayla Catmull remembers a particularly bad day when she was crying at school. Cooprider gave Catmull’s teacher her credit card and instructed her to take the girl out for a Coke. When Catmull returned, Cooprider spent time talking with her about why she was upset.

“We all worried that the changes were going to become a big mess” when Cooprider left, Catmull said. “But it’s held together pretty well.”

Despite the ease of Indy Met’s transition, experts say the departure of a key leader has a significant impact on any school.

Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, said leadership is critical to any school’s success. That can be especially true at charters, he said, because their education models are nuanced and they tend to have young teachers.

He cited instances where schools have fallen apart because of the departure of a principal.

“Those sort of top-down changes always worry me,” Plucker said. “I’ve seen plenty of bad schools with bad leaders, but I’ve never seen a good school without a good leader. You really have to have someone strong at the helm.”

But Indy Met has the support of work-force development stalwart Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, which sponsors the school and oversees its operations. That backing minimizes the impact of an individual departure, Bess and others say.

And while Cooprider played a big role in formulating many of the changes the school now is undertaking, she collaborated with a team of staffers—including interim principal Zawahri—to do it. That has made it easier to continue without hiccups.

Bess and others mostly credit the smoothness to the staff and students. Though some were deeply upset by Cooprider’s departure, they recognized the need to move on and focus on learning the new structure.

“You can’t really dwell on it. I try not to,” Catmull said. “The first week it was really weird not seeing her walk down the hall and smile at you or give you a hug or talk to you when you need her. But it gets easier.”•

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