(Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, sat down with Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott last week at the downtown public library for a one-on-one interview sponsored by WFYI. The full interview will be broadcast online next week but Chalkbeat is publishing some excerpts in the interim. Go here for Ferebee’s comments about middle schools and high schools and go here for his comments about the possibility of extending the school day or year at some IPS schools.)
One of the biggest challenges for Indianapolis Public Schools is assuring its most troubled, fragile and needy students can succeed.
During audience questions at last week’s WFYI conversation with Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, a majority were about students who are court-involved, autistic, handicapped, in special education, expelled, in need of vocational training, or working while attending school.
Ferebee promised new approaches to students in those categories.
For many of those kids, he said, the district’s own practices have to change. In other cases, Ferebee said he would be looking for business community support to help determine the best ways to help students overcome their obstacles and obtain skills that make them employable, perhaps through apprenticeships.
Here’s more of what he had to say:
Given the crime and killing of young people in our community, how are we going into troubled communities and bringing education to them?
Crime troubles me as well. What you find in urban environments where you have low graduation rates or you are graduating students who don’t have the skills to compete in the job market, you have a situation where crime is typically elevated. Unfortunately we have not done our best with ensuring students have the opportunity to succeed when they leave us. We need to do more to make sure students have the opportunity to support themselves and their families when they leave us.
There is so much involved in that. Wrap around services are so important. Alternative settings are so important. Career and technical education is so important. I think one of the challenges that we have is we have created a system where everybody is supposed to go to college to be successful. We know the number that if you have a college education you have more earning potential. But we also know the number of job opportunities that are available to our students when they leave us with career and technical education certifications or experiences or, most importantly, apprenticeships.
That is something I’m very interested in and I think the business community is very interested in as well. When I met with our high school students, I was blown away when we started talking about their experience. I would estimate 60 percent or higher of our high school students are working right now to support their families. But they’re working in jobs that don’t have very rich opportunities beyond the right now.
We have to find a way to give our students those same opportunities, but give them opportunities to work in areas that are going to lead to wider career opportunities as it relates to supporting them and their families. I think apprenticeships will help us with that.
Giving a student an opportunity to work in that environment, gain those skills and at the same time gain a little income to support the family is the way to go. We have some good options but we can do better. You can learn how to be a mechanic and learn how to be a culinary professional in IPS. You can learn how to be a pharmacy technician. But I think we have just touched the surface of what we can offer.
When I talk to students who are considering leaving us by dropping out or looking at other options many of them say “I don’t fit.” We’ve got to find a way that all of our students fit and find a place so when they leave us they are enlisted, enrolled or employed. If we can do that, quality of life improves for everyone.
I am excited about the fact that many people recognize that. They’ll say “my child is in a charter school” or “my child is in a township school” or “I don’t have children but I want to be involved in helping our students succeed.” Together I believe we can improve quality of life and opportunities for young people.
What is your philosophy about kids with special needs?
That is really important for IPS. The number (of special education students) is really close to 20 percent. If you look at Marion County, that’s the highest and it is something we are really proud of. We have families that come to IPS specifically because we offer so many options for students that have unique special needs and exceptionalities.
With that comes some challenges. I think our special education laws are written really well. We have to assure we are really providing the least restrictive learning environment. I think in some cases we don’t always do that very well. That’s a training and professional development opportunity for teachers and school leaders. It’s something we really need to sit down and plan to get better at.
We also have to ensure we have better coordination and cooperation between our special education educators and our general educators. A lot of times, if we don’t talk well we don’t have an opportunity to really provide the least restrictive environment.
The other area I want to raise up is autism. Nationally, the numbers on autism are rising significantly daily. It is a population that we are going to have to find a way to better serve. IPS, I believe, has some rich options in K-8 but if you have mild Asperger’s or other types of autism, when it’s time for you to go to high school we really don’t put our arms around you very well. I think we miss an opportunity to prepare those individuals to go to high school and be prepared for career and college.
We’ve got to figure out how do we do that better. There is research being produced on a daily basis where we are learning how to better serve our students with autism. That’s something I’d like to see IPS be a trailblazer with. It is the fastest growing special education population in the nation. If we don’t get ahead of the curve, I think we are going to get in a situation where we are not serving the students who are most vulnerable or have very unique needs.
I also believe we have learned a lot on our job training. We provide students with very specific and unique opportunities when it relates to job training if they are special needs. But I believe we can do more as well. If we can give students the skills for jobs and begin to prepare them to be familiar and be acclimated to the work environment in a meaningful way, then I think we can help them be successful to gain those life skills that they need.
Finally, parent support is so important with special education. Often times, as a teacher and a school leader, as you talk with parents of students with special needs the perception is “I’m the only parent in this situation.” You get that from general education parents as well but it’s so important, I think, to connect our parents of students with special needs to ensure they have a parental support net so they are not in that situation alone.
I think a lot of parents in that situation are struggling or feel they are alone as a parent in a household with a child with special needs. But there is many more across our district, so I’d like to see us better connect those families in a more meaningful way.
What should we do about students who get expelled for a year?
Every school and every school district struggles with the balance between safety and academics. You want to make sure you have a safe learning environment, but at the same time you don’t want to compromise safety in such a way where other students may be in danger. Anytime there is an opportunity to have a gun on campus you are compromising safety.
At the same time if you are removing the student from the educational environment for a year, that’s a year where the student doesn’t have access to instruction and he or she is getting further behind. We are constantly working to assure we strike a balance between preserving the learning environment with safety, but also ensuring we are very thoughtful about how students should be removed from the traditional learning environment and how they should be placed in our alternative settings.
I’ll tell you one thing that concerns me is that if you look carefully at the number of recommendations we have for long term suspensions or expulsions, close to 100 percent of those recommendations are being approved. That’s something we’re studying, and we’re looking to re-engineer that process. I think a system that ultimately produces 100 percent of recommendations for long term suspensions and expulsions is a system that is broken.
I also think we have the opportunity to change the face of our alternative setting. They shouldn’t be perceived as dumping grounds and they should really be alternative setting for children who need unique learning environments. The process now is redesigning what those experiences will look like so they are truly alternative to our traditional settings and not dumping grounds for administrators where they feel like students shouldn’t be a part of the traditional setting.
We’re also working closely with our judges and our judicial officials in the city to ensure we are in better communication for better supporting our young people so they have not fallen through the cracks. We’re also enhancing our communication with other education providers. Because we are so fragmented in IPS, we have students who pop in and out of IPS and charters or other schools and we often lose our most troubled teens. We are not able to truly put our arms around them.
I’m excited about the direction we are going forward as it relates to better communication as it relates to students who have been involved in our judicial system or have criminal histories.
How will you address disparities in the way children are disciplined, as nationally recent studies have shown higher rates of discipline for African American children?
We haven’t done a great job of collecting that data. We’re now starting to make sure principals have that data in front of them, asking them the hard questions about suspensions and ensuring that we have positive behavior interventions in all of our schools to ensure that our mode of discipline is not just reactive, but is actually proactive.
What are you thoughts about STEM education?
What we have done in education still represents the traditional liberal arts education. We have not done a lot with meaningful math and science instruction. With STEM, we joined the party too late. Most of our STEM education is at the secondary level.
I believe that is just too late to really create the interest for students to do the work to build those prerequisite skills for STEM-related skills. I see it in my own son. He’s a fourth grader. Whenever I can engage him in a hands-on science and technology and math experiences, his eyes just pop wide open and he’s really excited about learning.
I think we’re going to have to move from a model where you learn the traditional way — where you learned your math facts and you didn’t really explore the number sense behind how those numbers work. I think that’s where we’re really going to have to move. I think you see some of that in Common Core. You see that in other nations where their math book is half the size of ours. They’re going deeper and unfortunately we’ve had a very wide math curriculum where we’ve just touched the surface.
Hopefully we can go deeper in those concepts and prepare students for those fields, particularly for our minority and female students where they haven’t fared well. I think we have to be more intentional in our work there for those students.
I also like to embrace the arts as part of STEM. I’ve embraced the terminology of STEAM, which is STEM plus the arts. What you find is there is a strong correlation with arts performance and STEM related fields.
We have done some good work. We have a collaboration with Purdue University that has a clear pipeline for student in STEM. Students are matriculating from IPS into Purdue very well. I think we have an opportunity to replicate those types of programs. Stay tuned. We have some announcements coming. I think you’re going to be really pleased with where we go with our curriculum as it relates to STEM.
I could go on and on about STEM, but I would add that we have to do more after school and in the summer with STEM. When I went to Bankers Life Fieldhouse and saw our students compete in the robotics competition, and saw how that has taken off for IPS students, a lot of that work takes place after school and on weekends. I think we have an opportunity to do more with enrichment in those areas and then translate that back over to core instruction.
I think we are finding that we are not competitive. A lot of people believe, because of our manufacturing history, that a lot of the jobs in manufacturing have dried up. But actually they haven’t. They’re here. But the skills you need are different. So we have an opportunity to equip our students with those skills. I’m just excited about where we’re going. We can do more things with coding and equipping our students with software skills. We’re going to open the doors wide open for their futures. I’m excited, as you can tell.
How can businesses help you address the problem of people moving out of the IPS district because of the schools?
Every superintendent wants a business community that says: I want to do more. What the business community has realized is that, even though IPS is a fraction of the educational providers here in Indianapolis, we’re the face of Indianapolis education. When people think about Indianapolis — as businesses may want to come and people are encouraging people to want to come for economic development — the first source they go to is IPS. They don’t look at the mayor’s portfolio or other charters. They look at IPS.
We have to start dedicating our collaborative efforts to enhancing that conversation around all of the providers and ensuring that IPS has a strong stake in the supports. Every day, I read something about how people are investing in all the other providers.
Recently $11 million went into developing one of the Christel House charters. But, unfortunately, when businesses think about economic development for Indianapolis, they aren’t thinking about Christel House. They’re thinking about IPS. We’ve got to find ways to invest in IPS in a more meaningful way because we are not going to get there on a dime and we know that.
We also now have an opportunity to work collaboratively to ensure our young people see our businesses as an opportunity for employment and to see how IPS and Indianapolis professionals are working for our community on a daily basis. I’d love to see business leaders in our schools as principal for a day. I’d love to see an alliance of businesses coming together saying, “we’ve adopted IPS.”
I’d love to see our business leaders helping us design our curriculum and helping our teachers have a better understanding of how to move from just theory to application of what our students are going to potentially need as it relates to skills as they go into the work force. This idea — that we do what we do and you do what you do and we will produce students that are prepared for the work environment — is a myth we need to dispel. We need to be connected to the work environment to, on this side, prepare students for what happens on that side.
I welcome and embrace the business community and I look forward to enhanced relations. Not all of that is on the business community Honestly, IPS has had some closed doors as it relates to collaboration with the business community. With this administration, the doors are wide open, wider than what they’ve ever been.
I look forward to capitalizing on these opportunities to forge relationships. When we approach the business community, we won’t just have our hands out asking for a check. We’ll have our hands out in such a way where we are asking you to be a part of helping us to get better and capitalize on your expertise and resources.
What is your approach to giving graduation waivers for students in special education?
I talk to all sorts of families, some that drive from as far as Carmel for the (special education) services that we provide. We truly want to make sure our waivers are open to the students that are in those unique situations where they are taking the ECAs multiple times, that are coming to school everyday and giving their best effort, but that is just one hurdle where they haven’t been able to overcome. I think that is the true intent of the waiver. I believe it was abused in some cases. It was a get out of jail free card for some students who could have done more.
We legally are required to offer that waiver and will continue to do so. But what we will do is have a stronger filter to ensure it’s not a get out of jail free card for students or for teachers but that we truly make sure we do our best for students to be successful on our state assessments but at the same time we are still very mindful that not all of our students are going to be successful and are giving their best. That opportunity will still be available to those students.
It’s just something we needed to get a better handle on. Two years ago we had close to 200 students graduating with waivers. It just got to a point of abuse. We are getting a better handle on that.
Ferebee talked about the challenges IPS students face in response to a parent’s question about her child’s specific case.
Let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of all the balls that our students are juggling. It’s easy for us to be targeted because of our student population. I don’t make excuses for our students when I say that. But a lot of times people come after us because we are an easy target because of the student population that we serve.
I don’t ever want us to lose sight of all the balls our students are juggling. “Where are my parents going to be when I get home? What is the financial situation like in my house? Where is my next meal coming from? How can I support my family?” I don’t think it’s always fair when we compare our students to other students who aren’t balancing as many balls.