Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) is the second largest school district by enrollment in Indiana with 26,410 students. Almost 75% of IPS students are black or Hispanic, and roughly 64% qualify for free school meals. As of the 2019-2020 school year, there are 21 innovation network schools serving roughly 9,000 students — or about a third of the IPS student population.
The first innovation network school opened in 2015 after then Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1321 in 2014, legislation that was supported by then IPS Superintendent Lewis D. Ferebee and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard. The schools can be charter schools or traditional public schools, but they are all granted charter-like flexibility, allowing them to operate with the authority to make decisions about all aspects of their school, both academic and operational. Innovation network schools are held accountable by IPS, and their tests scores, enrollment numbers, and other academic data are counted in the district’s metrics.
Schools in the innovation network have the autonomy to determine staff compensation, create new staff positions and hiring criteria, set start and stop times for the school day, determine the number of school days in a year, and more. They also have the flexibility to opt in or out of IPS academic and non-academic services, such as custodial and IT support. Teachers at innovation network schools are not employees of IPS or able to join the teacher’s union, but are instead employed by a 501(c)3 corporation.
Under this portfolio model, IPS oversees a collection of both traditional public schools and charter schools. Other cities, including New Orleans and Denver, also utilize the portfolio model. IPS’ one-pager on the network says this:
“The purpose of Innovation Network Schools is to allow our district, and schools within our district, greater flexibility to make decisions based on the specific needs of a school’s student body.”
There are four pathways a school can take to become an innovation network school:
Here are a few of the key organizations in the innovation network schools landscape.
The Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation
The Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is the main charter authorizer in Indianapolis and Marion County. Currently, the mayor’s office authorizes 41 charter schools — 13 of which are innovation network schools — that enroll more than 15,000 students.
The mayor’s office offers two application windows each year and typically receives one to three applications in each cycle. During the application process, applicants are asked if they want to be an innovation network school. However, the district’s process for granting innovation network status is separate from the mayor’s charter application process. The mayor’s office may grant a charter, but it’s up to IPS to decide if they want to partner with the school in the innovation network. More on that later.
The Indianapolis Charter School Board of the mayor’s office has the authority to grant or reject charter applications. The board consists of nine members, six of whom are appointed by the mayor of Indianapolis and three of whom are appointed by the president of the City-County Council. If the board decides to grant the charter, the initial term is usually seven years.
According to Patrick McAlister, director of the Office of Education Innovation, mayoral-authorized charter schools undergo an oversight and accountability process every year that includes the following considerations.
Mayoral authorizing is incredibly unique nationwide — and, according to McAlister and others, it ushers in some benefits. For example, the mayor’s office can provide additional layers of support to the schools it authorizes, such as answering questions about building permits or public safety — the bread and butter of local government.
Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, said another important benefit of mayoral authorizing is the ability of the public to hold the mayor’s office accountable for high-quality, rigorous authorizing of charter schools.
“The mayor of Indianapolis has been such a high-quality authorizer through three consecutive mayors: one Republican, two Democrats. And we think that’s because the mayor of Indianapolis is an elected official who is directly held responsible by his or her constituents,” said Brown.
“And then folks actually have a vote once every few years around whether or not they continue their job. So when I hear that charter schools are not held accountable, I think that might be true in some places across the country — it’s just objectively not true in our city.”
Indianapolis Public Schools and Innovation Network Schools
Jamie VanDeWalle, portfolio officer for IPS, manages the team that oversees the contractual relationships between the 21 innovation network schools and the district. With 13 of the innovation network schools being mayoral-authorized charter schools, the district and the mayor’s office also work closely with one another.
Every August, IPS opens a call for interest in the innovation network, allowing both existing IPS schools that want to convert to innovation status and outside charter schools that want to join the network to express interest. After an initial vetting and interview process, schools are invited to apply for innovation network status.
If the school is also working to gain a charter, their application to the charter authorizer is often due around the same time, and the two applications look similar. Formal applications are submitted in November, followed by another set of interviews. The final decision rests with the IPS Board of Commissioners.
Every innovation network school holds an innovation network agreement with IPS which vary depending on the school’s unique situations. For example, innovation network schools can opt to use district resources — like custodial staff, food services, and IT support — and then reimburse the district for those services. Or, they can opt out and use a different vendor. In some cases, innovation schools can gain access to IPS buildings or receive additional funding from the district. These agreements also outline the rules for termination of the agreement based on factors like academic performance or bankruptcy.
Michael O’Connor, president of the IPS Board of Commissioners, said the board’s core beliefs are that every neighborhood has the right to a high-quality school and every family has the right to access to a world-class education. Innovation network schools, he said, are one of many tools the district is using to ensure access to a high-quality education for every student.
“The first thing we have to think about is every kid that’s in education in a public setting, whether they be charter, innovation network school, autonomous school, or traditional school — they’re our kids. We have a responsibility to make sure it’s working for them,” said O’Connor.
The Mind Trust
The Mind Trust is a nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis that was founded in 2006 by former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and David Harris, one of Peterson’s policy advisors who first built and ran the mayor’s charter school office. The group focuses on three main aspects of work: growing great schools, supporting great schools, and engaging the community.
After House Bill 1321 passed and allowed for the creation of innovation network schools, the Mind Trust launched the Innovation School Fellowship, a one or two year incubation experience where school leaders from Indianapolis and around the country have the chance to design a school from the ground up with ongoing support from The Mind Trust. Brown said the fellowship was designed to offer an implementation strategy to support the innovation network schools legislation.
“There’s a flawed notion that if you recruit and resource an exceptional leader, then you can get out of their way and just assume that they’re going to flourish,” said Brown. “Even exceptionally transformative leaders need intentional support.”
Fellows have the opportunity to visit high-performing schools across the country and receive executive coaching in non-instructional practices like managing a budget and working with a board of directors. They also spend time engaging with community members to gather feedback that informs their school design. According to Brown, the cohort of both year one and year two fellows is usually between nine and 11 individuals, and an average of six schools are launched from the fellowship each year.
Brown said he is most proud of the fellowship’s record in recruiting fellows of color who go on to hire teachers that reflect the demographics of their students and community.
“One common criticism of charter schools across the country is that oftentimes they’re outsiders who don’t really reflect their kids. The work here is a locally driven effort where we’re also able to recruit great leaders from across the country who do reflect our kids,” said Brown. “And I think the result of that has been high-performing schools that have deep trust in the community.”
The Mind Trust also supports the fellows in working with both the mayor’s office and IPS as they navigate the charter authorization and innovation network school process. McAlister said the mayor’s office is in regular communication with The Mind Trust about the work the fellows are doing.
“We work very directly with the fellows so they understand what they’re coming in for when they apply for a charter. Any collaboration is difficult … but having groups of people who share common values around equity is really, really important to driving this work forward in Indianapolis,” said McAlister.