Innovation Zones: How Indianapolis Public Schools rose to success

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Last week South Bend Schools announced a major shakeup involving the possible shutdown and restructuring of some schools in the district. One of the proposals is to turn Marquette Montessori and Muessel Elementary into innovation schools.

But what exactly is an innovation school, and will it work?

Just like Muessel Elementary and Marquette Montessori, the Global Prep Academy at Riverside 44 in Indianapolis was underperforming, it had a grade of F for four or more years. But the Head of School at Global Prep said becoming an innovation school has been the best thing that could’ve happened for her students.

In a proposal announced over a week ago, the South Bend school corporation is seeking to transition both Muessel Elementary and Marquette Montessori into an innovation zone by fall 2021.

But what does that mean?

To get some answers we looked to a district full of innovation schools, Indianapolis Public Schools.

"We became an innovation school in 2016," Mariama Shaheed, the Founder, and Head of School at Global Prep Academy at Riverside 44 said.

It’s a long name... for a reason.

"That's really intentional, because, you know, Riverside 44 was here long before we were, you know, this is Riverside 44 is that school in the community, that so many African Americans have either gone to their cousins went two generations have come through. So there's a rich history that this building and this area has," Shaheed said.

Much like what we’re seeing in Marquette Montessori, parents at Riverside were not eager for change.

"The idea that somehow we're tethered to a failing school because of its test scores, that's ridiculous, and it's very, very offensive," Kathryn Ball-Boruff, a mom with two kids at Marquette said.

"One thing similar to what's happening in south bend, it was all new," Shaheed said. "Even if it didn't have a rich tradition, it's what people know. And so there was a lot of fear and a lot of communication out there in the community that were just, I mean, all these misnomers, about who I was, what I was doing and what was going to happen."

So what exactly are the differences between a traditional elementary school and an innovation school?

The best way to describe the model in Indianapolis is a school independent from the school district still operating inside the school district.

Global Prep Academy at Riverside 44 has different staffing options.

"So being able to select staff, and recruit staff using the strategies that we decide is different from the district strategy," Shaheed said.

A different way they pay teachers.

"Our pay scale isn't the same as the districts. We also have different bonuses and incentives, and stipend plans, and all these things that create our compensation package, which is different from the district," she said.

And in some cases a different school day.

"We also have the autonomy about the length of our school day, the length of our school year, we have early release day, on Thursdays, these are all the things that our community needed," she said. "When there's a district and all the elementary schools do said thing, it doesn't necessarily speak to the needs of the community where that school sits."

Because sometimes following a district's plan can bring a school down.

"In a way it can, it can, because there are opportunities that you can just take hold of and move quickly," she said. "So for example, in the first year that we opened, our kids were significantly behind academically. And so immediately, we were able to put tutoring in place and pay teacher stipends to do that tutoring, we didn't have to wait to get approval from the board, see if there's a fund that maybe we could pull from, we needed it on a Monday, and that next week, we executed.”

One of the major debates with innovation schools, especially in South Bend with the shakeup, has to do with teachers union contracts being severed.

"In our particular case, we came into an existing school and shared our model with the teachers that were already here. And then they had an opportunity to apply," she said.

With union contracts gone and too much unknown for the future, many teachers decided to leave. Leaving Shaheed to hire more staff.

“80, 80 staff," she said. "Because it was also new, there was a mass exodus, and only one teacher applied and stayed. And that teacher left at the end of the first semester. It's hard work to turn around the school. And some people are in it, and some people just aren't."

Many teachers feared that not having union protection would leave them vulnerable to being fired, but Shaheed said that’s not the case.

"You know, I'll say we do not have a union here, but one of the things that we're very careful with is protecting the rights of teachers and making sure that teachers' voices matter in our school," she said.

Shaheed believes teachers leaving is all just part of the transition process.

"For the culture to change, it means that some of the adults will need to change," she said.

But, what about the students?

"Very few, very few. We had when we came in, I believe there were 458 students that were in the school. By the end of that first year, we were at 600," she said.

600 students with improved test scores and a new will to learn.

"We've doubled proficiency in the first year," she said. "We went from 58% of the kids passing, to 70% percent of the kids passing iRead in the first year. And so what we saw was kids wanted to be taught, and kids wanted to learn, and they wanted to excel. And families wanted it too, we had 85% parent participation in the first year at conferences. So you know, people often say, oh, the parents don't care, or they don't want to be a part of it, they did want to be a part of it. They just didn't know where to plug-in.”

Shaheed looks back on the past 4 school years fondly and believes this project has been a success.

"Every year, our attendance has increased every year, every year enrollment has increased, rather. So what we're seeing is while parents may not say it's all about innovation, they'll say they love their school," she said. "We're growing kids, and they're getting better because of the things that we're doing.

Shaheed said they changed from a grade F to a grade A in the first two years that the school transitioned to an innovation school. They were also in the Indianapolis Public Schools top six schools for growing kids.

If you have any questions regarding the South Bend Schools proposals, innovation schools or anything around school procedures during this time, reach out to us! Learningcurve@abc57.com


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