After interviewing 3 candidates, IPS close to tapping its next superintendent

After meeting late into the night Tuesday, the Indianapolis Public Schools board is coalescing around a new superintendent, according to board member Venita Moore.

The board met behind closed doors after a public interview of the three candidates to replace former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, Moore said, and while members have not made a final selection, “there seems to be a majority around the person that we want.”

The school board president is performing more due diligence before the board offers the position, including discussions with attorneys, Moore said, but she expects an announcement of the new superintendent as soon as Friday. Board members have said previously they hope to select a new leader by the end of June.

Moore declined to say which candidate the majority of board members supported or if there were board members who supported other finalists.

Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who previously led a charter school and is seen as a charter ally, has been considered a top contender to run the district permanently from the beginning of the search. And in the weeks since she announced she would apply for the position, a steady stream of parents have spoken in favor of her at school board meetings.

An assistant superintendent in Pike Township, Larry Young has spent more time in a traditional public school system, and he has attracted some support from critics of the rapid changes under Ferebee’s administration. Devon Horton, chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, cast his outsider status as a benefit that would allow him to use wisdom gleaned in other districts to improve IPS.

Ahead of the board’s selection of a candidate, parents who spoke to Chalkbeat seemed to be largely positive about the three finalists, whose names were announced last week.

Many of the parents who have rallied around Johnson have children enrolled in innovation schools. It’s a controversial program in part because teachers at the schools are not part of the district union, but it has won acclaim from national charter school advocates. Johnson joined the district four years ago to help create innovation schools.

For Lena Dickerson, who has a daughter in first grade at the innovation school Ignite Achievement Academy at School 42, Johnson’s experience with innovation schools is a selling point—along with her background as a teacher and parent.

“She will be able to take the model that is IPS and build it up and make it better,” said Dickerson, who had made up her mind before the interviews. “It doesn’t have to be innovation. But it can be made better. And she can also include innovation in that without trying to destroy it and tear it apart.”

LaToya Tahirou has two children at Phalen Leadership Academy at School 103, one of the district’s first innovation schools. She said that Johnson’s work with innovation schools and as deputy superintendent has given her frontline experience.

Although she feels the other candidates are good options, Tahirou said if the board chose one of the other finalists, she would be nervous. She already knows Johnson can do the job.

”I have experience with her—I know what she’s capable of, I know the work that she’s been a part of. It gives me just an extra level of comfort,” Tahirou said.

Although finalist Young comes from outside the district, the veteran Pike township educator has close ties in IPS. Guy Russell, who graduated from Shortridge High School in 1959, said that both Young and Johnson are connected with other people he knows in the community.

Russell said he missed Johnson and Horton’s interviews Tuesday, but he was impressed by Young. He was leaning toward supporting Johnson before the interviews, Russell said, but after seeing Young, “he might have come from the pack.”

Amy Goldsmith, who has three children at School 60 and one at Shortridge High School, said she was inspired by Young’s letter of interest. It resonated because it included a focus on the philosophy of teaching she did not see from the other candidates, Goldsmith said.

It’s important to think of children “not just as blank slates but as people in society who already have something to contribute,” Goldsmith said. “It seems like I might have found a friend in Larry Young just from the language that he’s using.”

Chelsea Koehring, who has children at School 60 and at Sidener Academy, said that even before the interviews she had heard good things about Young from friends who teach in Pike. She was also impressed by the research Horton had done in advance of the interview, Koehring said.

As a former teacher and as a parent, Koehring said she would have liked more granular detail in the interviews. When finalists promised to give teachers the resources they need when they need them, for example, she wanted to know “how are you going to execute that on a limited budget given the constraints of what IPS is working with?” she said. “Show me what that looks like.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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