Reinventing America’s Schools


Indianapolis is the only American city where the mayor authorizes charter schools. Indiana’s charter law has been ranked No. 1 in the country by both the National Association of Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Some skeptics doubt that cities other than hot spots that draw millennials, such as Boston, D.C., New Orleans, and Denver, can attract the talent necessary to build large, vibrant charter sectors. But for the past decade, Indianapolis has proven them wrong. Today the city is innovating again.

Photos by Markus Zeffler

Mary Ann Sullivan

President, IPS Board of School Commissioners & Former Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives Indianapolis

It's just always been very real for me, that the advantages I had in life came mostly through education or my family...and then seeing too many kids in the same system who weren't given the same kind of experience that the kids in my kids' school had, and thinking that shouldn't be left to chance. That shouldn't be left to whether parents know something's happening, and sign up on time, or any of that. Every child should have that advantage. Every family should have that knowledge, and that power, to do the best for their kid. Unfortunately, I think that we're seeing the results of not caring about education all around us. And I think that our country's in crisis. And I think a big part of the reason we're in crisis is because we haven't had a strong system of public education. We have lived on our laurels for too long, in a lot of ways, but definitely in terms of our public schools. And there's just no reason we shouldn't have the best schools in the world. I think when we do that, we will solve a lot of other problems at the same time.

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Scott Bess

Head of School, Purdue Polytechnic High School Indianapolis

We can get them into college, but if they go to college and they struggle, or if they drop out after a couple of years, or if they get a job but then they struggle to keep it, to me we've failed, even though there may be a hundred other things that have happened. But we didn't set them up with the ability to handle the things that will happen. Any judgment of a high school has to be really on what happens after the students leave and go into their next thing.

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Aleesia Johnson

Innovation Officer, Indianapolis Public Schools Indianapolis

I think the work we've done around our innovation network schools has been about redefining how we think about school improvement and what it means to empower schools to have flexibility and decisionmaking authority, and to be able to leverage that flexibility on a local level, but still have the support and resources of a traditional district to support you. I think what we're trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure.

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Ahmed Young

Director, Indianapolis Mayor's Office of Education Innovation Indianapolis

Financial resources, political courage and a slew of other issues are preventing other cities from continuing to step outside of the box and create new ways to educate our students. We need to bring more partners together and have difficult conversations. It takes a certain level of political courage and just nuance to get that done. The parties here in the city of Indianapolis have been doing that for an extended period of time. I don't see that stopping.

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De Meita Vincent

Parent of a 1st grader at Global Prepatory Academy & 9th grade Teacher at Purdue Polytechnic High School Indianapolis

School choice is very important to me, because it gives me the opportunity to look at my children individually, determine what school has a good program that's going to be a good fit for what I want them to obtain or achieve or pursue in terms of their interest, and then give them that educationally.

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Brandon Brown

Senior VP for Education Innovation, The Mind Trust Indianapolis

Most schools and most classrooms look really similar to how they looked 100 to 150 years ago. And if you think about any other industry, I can't think of many industries that look the same as they did 100 years ago. Our economy has changed, our society has changed, and in many ways, our school systems haven't. So I do think that there is a role for innovation and we always need to be pushing the envelope for finding new school models and leveraging technology in the classroom, rethinking school facilities. So we're always going to be thinking about that. 

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Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo

Senior VP for Strategy & Community Engagement, The Mind Trust Indianapolis

I think the innovation is important because our realities are very different today than they were, say, 50 years ago. If the purpose of education is to make sure that people have access to live the lives that they want to lead, we have to think about what jobs are available to those students. So the skills that children need today are different than the skills they needed 50 years ago so we have to make sure that we're creating learning environments that are going to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. I think the other part is just to make sure that we're creating environments for learning where students are able to express themselves in ways that just culturally are different. 

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Mariama Carson

Founder and Principal, Global Preparatory Academy Indianapolis

In all of my children, I see myself. In all of my children, I see possibilities, but for them, their circumstances are just different than mine. So I was raised with two parents, both professionals, had three sisters, very controlled environment, very structured. But what I see with my children here, they don't have that. Not all of them, but some of them don't. So in our school here, 70 percent of the kids come from this community. About 73 percent of our children receive free and reduced price lunch. But the vision of the school also attracts 30 percent of children all around the city. So it's a very beautifully diverse environment, but the struggles of my 70 percent are what bring me here.

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Brooke Beavers & Shy-Quon Ely II

Co-founders & heads of school, Ignite Achievement Academy Indianapolis

What we know about just the human dynamic, the human being and especially the human brain that is stressed or impoverished ... How can we be better at serving families and providing wrap-around support so that we can address the very bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? If they're not safe, if they're satisfying just basic food and water and safety and love and care and support, if those in that triangle or that pyramid aren't being satisfied, then we can never get to self-actualization, which is what education is truly supposed to be. We want to draw out one's genius so that they can self-actualize and continue to push potential. Because I don't ever think that you reach potential, but you can always push it, push it, push it, push it, and that's what we want to do. It's exciting and humbling to be a part. But there's plenty to work on. This is constant, never-ending improvement. There will always be more to do. 

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Earl Phalen

Founder & CEO, George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies Indianapolis

We ask at the end of the year, and we ask at other points, but officially at the end of the year, "Do you feel like there's somebody in this building that really loves you? That really, really deeply cares about you?" And that number needs to be 100 percent for us, that children have a safe place, in addition to the counseling, and in addition to the other pieces.

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From Chapter 11: Indianapolis Blazes Two New Trails

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Tommy Reddicks

Executive Director, Paramount Schools of Excellence Indianapolis

I'm the first to say that what we do isn't really innovative. What we do is tried and true and we're standing on the shoulders of others and we work really hard, but I think our creative problem-solving along the way we can attribute directly to our ability to be good improvisors. And I think you have to be, especially in the inner city. The demands on you are very different than maybe a rural or suburban area. So we need to be very responsive to our family and to our school culture. And that takes a pretty high bar in terms of creativity. We like to scaffold with excitement. We've got six goats, 25 chickens, five beehives, five wind turbines, a peace park, a large urban garden. These are all things that are incentives to be in the space, to come to school, to get there.

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Lewis Ferebee

Superintendent, Indianapolis Public Schools Indianapolis

I think with any change in education, you always try to keep the focus on student learning and student success and how we best support students and their families. But, ultimately when there's significant change, there comes resistance as it relates to adult interest. For me, that continues to be the most trying aspect of all of my work, is that inserted in this effort to provide better service to our students and their families come comfort and discomfort for employees. Typically, when there's significant change, there's a lot of discomfort associated with that. But, we continue to stay committed to our students and their families. We know how important it is to ensure that our students are really, really prepared to take care of themselves or their families when they leave us and prepared for college and career when they leave us. That continues to be our north star.

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Bart Peterson

Board chair, The Mind Trust & former Mayor, City of Indianapolis Indianapolis

A mayor has the ability to put their hands right on the challenges and figure out solutions unlike, in my view, any other elected official. I've been a big believer in the theory of the importance of the role of a mayor. Now I think we've got enough data behind it to show that you really can make a difference that is unlike a difference that any other elected official can make.

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