IPS hopes to arm 'priority school' teachers with tools, optimism

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
An elementary school teacher at one of Indianapolis Public Schools' priority schools describes the qualities of her favorite teacher during the 2014 Priority Schools Summer Institute.

Shortly after 8 a.m. Monday morning, Toneysha Amos wasted no time trying to energize more than 100 Indianapolis Public School teachers and administrators from the district’s neediest schools who gathered in a crowded middle school cafeteria.

She blasted the sporting event classic “The Hey Song.”

She showed a pep talk from the Internet sensation Kid President, a 10-year-old boy named Robby Novak who wants to change the world.

Slowly but surely the educators, who were at the district’s first summer seminar devoted to improving the district’s most challenging and concerning priority schools, transformed from quiet to lively.

“This morning I need everyone to shake a little loose,” said Amos, IPS’ director of innovation and transformation. “You look a little tense.”

Maybe the teachers’  morning dose of caffeine was kicking in, but Amos said she wouldn’t underestimate what a little positivity and creativity can do for teachers who are weighed down by the disappointment of failing test scores and the pressure to improve.

While two thirds of the district’s schools were rated a D or F last year by the state, 11 IPS schools are on red alert, having been rated an F by the state the past two years and showing little to negative growth in test scores. Teachers and staff from the 11 priority schools and two other low-performing schools were in attendance Monday.

“Let’s make this a transformational journey,” Amos said. “We don’t have to make it such a grueling process. We can laugh. We can enjoy each other to make it through.”

That was the theme of the three-day seminar, which IPS officials said they hoped armed teachers with a positive attitude, new instructional tools and a new network of colleagues to lean on — all for the purpose of turning around the schools.

“We want them to feel energized and excited about going to their school,” said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “It’s such a burden. It’s easy to give them data and say ‘get it done.’ We want you to get it done, but we want to support you throughout the way.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee challenged the teachers and staff to hold themselves and others accountable.

“We’re not going to make any excuses about who we are or who we serve and what’s ahead of us,” Ferebee said. “We only have one time to get this right for students.

“That means you’re prepared. No parking plot planning, no figuring out what you’re doing to do that morning in the car. That means that you’re not going to teach from your seat. That means you’re going to challenge your students to prove their answers. We’re asking you to do this work in a very different way.”

One of the first lessons for the priority school teachers was in mastery learning, an instructional framework that involves incorporating aspects of individual tutoring in large classroom environments to help students who learn at different paces.

Mastery learning is based on the notion that all students can learn if they are in the right environment — something that Amos said should guide teachers in their quest to transform their classrooms.

“It’s not a whim or a quick fix,” Amos said. “It’s an approach that will produce active students who are buying into the learning process.”

In another lesson, IPS teachers learned about fostering grit and resilience in low-income, urban students. 

The concept of teaching students to see setbacks and mistakes as a normal and important part of the learning process is becoming popular in education circles these days after University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth won a MacArthur Genius Grant last year for her research, which hypothesizes that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ. 

IPS teacher Heather McKinney, who teaches at School 93, led a group of kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers to think about how they might build resilient students in their own classrooms.

She said teaching students how to quickly bounce back from their mistakes could be a key to turning a priority school into a successful school.

“We don’t want to have any excuses,” McKinney said. “We know there are (low-income) schools that have high achievement. There’s an underlying common theme there. That theme is if we teach students to push past the frustration and the failure, we can tap them into success.” 

First-year teacher Crystal Bailey, who will soon teach first graders at School 69, said learning from experienced IPS teachers and staff has motivated her. The North side school has earned 3 years of Fs from the state since 2010 and has one of the district’s lowest ISTEP pass rates.

“It has uplifted me, coming into a priority school and knowing that I can help these students,” Bailey said. “It makes me feel wonderful. Our school might be a priority school now, but where will we be in the next two or three years?”

Principal Mike Akers, who oversees Broad Ripple Junior and Senior High School, attended the seminar with his middle school teachers. The junior high school earned an F from the state last year.

He said he appreciated the district’s effort to minimize the stigma of failing schools and instead arm them with extra support and tools.

“It’s another avenue for us to make things better for the kids,” Akers said. “They are our future, and our kids come from an awful lot. I’ve always told my teachers it’s about building relationships. This is just another relationship. The IPS priority schools are family now.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”