Innovation in Indianapolis:  A conversation with Indianapolis Public Schools Innovation Officer Aleesia Johnson


Since when did innovation become a dirty word?

Last I checked, innovation is supposed to evoke positive change through new ways of thinking. It is the product of searching for and implementing new solutions to old problems.  

By its very nature, innovation suggests change…change for the better.

Within Indianapolis Public Schools, the promise of innovation, if successful, will result in district wide transformation where the educational environment allows for greater local autonomy, site based decision making and decentralized bureaucracy with greater focus on support and resource allocation to its schools.

Still early in the process, barely three years since the state’s passage of the law allowing for innovation schools, IPS has aggressively pursued partnerships and initiatives that broaden the type of options available to students. At the same time, these efforts have enabled the district’s ability to consolidate student results while stimulating greater accountability through the Innovation Network and its pathways.

IPS Innovation Officer Aleesia Johnson freely admits the road to this lofty goal has been one replete with successes and missteps. Spearheading the innovation charted by IPS Superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee and the IPS Board of School Commissioners, Johnson and her “mighty staff of four” have set forth on a path whose destination has not yet been fully defined.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Johnson for a wide-ranging discussion on the state of the IPS Innovation process and the district’s plans going forward.

In the few years the district has implemented this process, you have carried the burden of persuasion to all IPS stakeholders to gain buy in. Have you experienced progress among people who have been opposed to the district’s direction or are you finding greater buy in?

People who take time to really dive under the surface and learn more deeply about the actual schools that are coming on board or are interested in being partners with the district generally come back with much more positive reflections and thoughts about the model and the idea of partnerships and collaboration.

I think there are great school leaders in schools that are going to provide great opportunities for kids where they didn’t have those opportunities before and most people find a hard time arguing with that. They can argue with the concept, but once you physically go into a building and look and feel and see the difference, it’s hard to argue that what was happening before was a better option than what’s happening now.

Since the concept of more robust innovation has been engaged, do you feel the process has been strengthened; what needs to be tweaked?

A big lesson learned for us has been around engagement with multiple stakeholders around the information people have. Out of all the innovation pathways, restart situations are generally the most contentious path.   Sometimes parents or even staff seem to not know we were in these dire straits; they didn’t know significant action was right around the corner. It made us think about how we are sharing information about how our schools are performing more broadly.  When we say innovation needs to happen, we are looking at a couple of ways to engage the community.

What I try to do all the time is push myself to consider all the angles, for my team and I try to be humble enough to step back and say, “Yeah we missed the ball there.” At least if we fail, we can fail forward and consider what actions we can take to make things better. At the end of the day, I feel a lot of urgency around making sure our kids have great schools. I don’t care what kind of school it is, I want it to be a great school where kids feel safe and loved. Can we focus on that, as opposed to who’s governing the school? Is the school a safe place where kids can grow and flourish? Period.

One of the common arguments around innovation schools revolves around this notion of laxed accountability. Do you feel confident innovation schools have the time needed to make progress and is the district prepared to adjust, including closures, where necessary?

The IPS Board of School Commissioners are very clear on if schools aren’t hitting the mark, we have to take action. I don’t feel with this current board and my current team doing the work, we would hesitate, if it is the right thing to do because we’re talking about our students’ future. We’re not talking about the comfort and security of grownups; we’re talking about what does it mean for each of our students. I take that very seriously and we have to make those hard decisions.

To this point, “They’re not held accountable,” I would argue the front end selection that happens between the charter authorizer, the mayor’s office vetting them, then also having to apply to the district before they’re approved is much more rigorous than any new traditional public school that would open.  In the same way, I don’t think we should tell traditional public schools you get to exist just because you always have existed.  We certainly aren’t going to use that same default excuse for new schools to exist if they’re not serving kids well.

What are the initial data telling us about the current innovation school partners?

It’s interesting because we have schools different places. We have high performing and low performing schools. If you look at the data in the aggregate, it’s positive and when you look at the recently released I-STEP data, 7 of 8 innovation schools, with eligible testing grades, made positive overall proficiency gains and several were also in the top tier in terms of highest student growth on I-STEP as well. The district is also developing a school planning and performance framework that will look at more than test scores.  We’ll have some other firm quantitative data to see if schools are trending in the right direction. From an enrollment standpoint, it’s positive. Students are returning to the schools that were restarted. Enrollment is trending positively and our teacher retention has been strong at conversion schools. If it was an existing charter school we’ve brought in - many have been pretty high performing so we’re looking for them to maintain that performance, especially now that they have additional supports they can glean from the district if they choose.   

In your estimation, what should stakeholders look at to evaluate the overall success of this effort?

Outside of the I-STEP bar, that quite frankly many people don’t have a lot of confidence in right now but gives them a common way to talk about it, I would say carve out time to go into the buildings to get a sense for yourself. Talk to the principal, talk to the kids and ask the kids what they like about the school, what their experiences are. Let them tell you the story. They’re not going to hold back; they’re going to give you the real!

What are your observations at the local and district level regarding IPS’ efforts to transform schools to more autonomous models?

If you put permission out there and you give folks the leeway, but you also don’t train or develop them in a way that empowers them to think strategically about how to use those new flexibilities, that’s a challenge. That’s why we’ve done the autonomy cohort. The principals who have received this expanded flexibility go through development to learn how to use it in a way that’s going to matter most for their kids. Taking that from 12 schools to 60 is a different animal.

We’re trying to figure out how our development of principals and our principal coaching and leading can change so they are equipped with the tools they need to think innovatively about how they’re using their people, time, technology and resources.

It’s a big shift to say the schools are going to tell us, central office, what they need and we’re going to respond to that. We will operate in a fundamentally different way, so how do we motivate our central office and school-based teams and give them the support they need to make this transition? There’s lots of growing pains to manage to help people feel invested in the process. That’s a challenge.

Is it safe to say the district’s strategy couples decentralization with innovation? What should the IPS community of schools and stakeholders take away as we consider ways to assist the district in this strategy?

I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools. There’s a lot of potential for stakeholders to feel like they really do have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood

What will IPS look like in five years? Specifically, do you have a number for each type of schools we should anticipate for our students?

We don’t have numbers of how many schools will be one kind versus another kind; that’s intentional. Dr. Ferebee would say we want a high-quality school in every neighborhood. He doesn’t put an adjective on what kind of school. We are committed to making sure we get there. If we think about innovation schools, three of the four pathways are schools themselves saying we want to do this thing, so it’s voluntary. I can’t tell you today how many schools will raise their hands to do so. In terms of how many and what kind, I don’t know.  What I do know is all our schools will be considered autonomous schools because they will have those expanded flexibilities and we’ll also have our other pathways as well. We still have some schools that haven’t performed well and are under some state support such as the Transformation Zone.  We’ll see what the future holds for that work as well.

From central office, it is a reorienting of the work.  It’s less monitoring and command central and more facilitating and development or let’s figure out what best practices are across the country and we’ll get that into the hands of our principals so they can decide what’s going to be the best next step for their school. It’s about central office responding to the schools instead of the schools responding to us. We have a supportive board, a visionary superintendent, and a really strong leadership team. I am confident that together we will be able to achieve the goal of a high-quality school in all the neighborhoods we serve.