Indianapolis Public Schools picks interim superintendent to lead district

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Interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson, a longtime ally of charter schools, was officially chosen to lead Indianapolis Public Schools by the district’s school board Friday.

Johnson’s appointment to lead the state’s largest district solidifies the system’s high-profile transformation into a district that works hand-in-hand with charter school operators.

A former charter school principal, Johnson was hired four years ago to oversee the new innovation program, where outside operators run campuses that are considered part of IPS. That initiative has drawn attention from around the country and helped the district of about 31,000 students establish an outsize reputation.

Johnson was tapped as superintendent after a five-month input and search process that culminated in public interviews with three finalists on Tuesday. The other finalists were Larry Young, an assistant superintendent from Pike Township, and Devon Horton, who serves as chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville.

After serving as deputy superintendent for less than a year, Johnson became the district’s temporary leader when former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee left in January to take the helm of the Washington, D.C., school system. She is the first African-American woman to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson has three school-age children who attend district schools and an adult stepdaughter.

Known for being personable and building strong relationships, Johnson is widely liked by Indianapolis leaders and supporters of innovation schools. In the weeks since she announced she was applying to become superintendent, several parents have spoken in support of Johnson at school board meetings. But her choice is controversial among critics of innovation schools and the other rapid changes that were made under Ferebee’s administration because she is seen as continuing his strategy.

In the public interview Tuesday, Johnson spoke of her commitment to Indianapolis Public Schools, and she made a case that she would improve opportunities for students of color.

“We simply cannot be satisfied, be comfortable, or be anything less than relentlessly urgent about changing the conditions of our… school system,” Johnson said. “We have within our direct power the ability to impact the trajectory of each of our students lives when they leave us.”

The selection demonstrates that board members have come to trust Johnson, who is relatively new to district leadership, while she served as interim leader for the past six months. She rose from the principal of a charter school of about 350 students to chief of a school system in four years.

"Aleesia has been instrumental in the transformation of IPS into an innovative, student-centered school system that provides diverse learning experiences to match the diverse needs of the students it serves," Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber said in written comments. "The academic gains of the last several years are a decisive argument for her candidacy."

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

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