EDITORIAL: IPS’ new chief can’t dilly-dally

July 6, 2013

It’s hard not to notice how polarized K-12 education has become in Indiana, with those who favor traditional public schools squaring off against those who favor charters and other initiatives aimed at giving parents choice.

We hope both camps can see the big picture and wish the best for Indianapolis Public Schools’ new superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, who is jumping into a job that chewed up most of his predecessors.

The stark reality is that the health of the Indianapolis area hinges in large part on turning around the decaying neighborhoods that surround downtown. That’s why it’s essential that our community finally get a mass transit system for the 21st century that connects the working poor to jobs. And that’s why business and civic leaders can no longer sit idly by as the state’s most-urban school district shortchanges students.

To be sure, the challenges facing IPS are monstrous compared to those facing suburban districts—a point often lost in simplistic discussions about education, which almost invariably reach the conclusion that suburban schools are best.

Too many of the children beginning their educational journeys in IPS elementaries already are years behind their suburban peers—a reflection of a stew of challenges, from deep poverty to complicated family lives.

To fix the district, Ferebee, 39, must exhibit some of the traits of his immediate predecessor, Eugene White, such as his self-confidence and forceful personality, without some of the others, such as the surprising reluctance he exhibited to abandon the status quo, take a machete to the central office, or accept differences of opinion with his board.

It’s encouraging that Ferebee is coming from Durham, N.C., rather than the local education scene, and thus will be starting with a clean slate.

He’ll need to make hard choices to bring financial stability to a district suffering from a $30 million structural deficit. But just as important, he’ll need to take meaningful steps to improve student and teacher performance. As he said during his public interview with the board, “If you expect more, students reach higher. We must know every student by name and need.”

It’s far easier to deliver such rhetoric than to deliver improved results, of course. But we see reasons for optimism—including that he’ll be working with a new-and-improved school board loaded with reform-minded members who appear willing to make politically unpopular decisions.

Ferebee can’t turn things around overnight—no school administrator could. But we’re hopeful he’ll tackle the challenges with a sense of urgency—and with a steely-eyed determination that failure is not an option.

Everyone in the community should be rooting for him as he begins that quest.•


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