INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indianapolis Public Schools is holding the 2021 State of the District event.
The virtual event is dubbed “Rebuilding Stronger.”
Dr. Aleesia Johnson is expected to discuss how the district is keeping students and faculty safe amid the pandemic, as well as the future of IPS schools.
Text of ‘Rebuilding Stronger: 2021 State of the District Speech’
I. Acknowledgements and introduction
Good evening, and thank you for joining.
It’s so great to be here at Arsenal Technical High School. I’m grateful to everyone who’s joining us — including our IPS Board of School Commissioners, members of my executive leadership team, my fellow staff of TeamIPS, our students, and so many representatives of our nonprofits, higher education, parent and community organizations, and the business community.
II. Celebration and gratitude
Even just two months ago, I wouldn’t have figured on giving these remarks to a virtual audience, any more than I would have predicted this pandemic going into overtime. In our lifetimes, we’ve never faced the challenge we do today. And as our IPS family rises to that challenge, I’ve never been prouder.
Taking care of our kids and our families through this pandemic, opening our schools safely for our children — these are astonishingly complicated undertakings. They say, “countless unseen details separate the mediocre from the magnificent.” Behind those unseen details are magnificent people — starting with our principals and teachers, who have remained available, nimble and innovative in altering teaching and learning. And so many staff, at the school and central levels, who’ve dealt with everything from devices to ventilation to protective equipment and meals to meet the needs of our students.
Moments of crisis can scare us into looking out just for ourselves — or they can inspire us to care for our community. People like those who are a part of TeamIPS show us how to find our best selves. They give me energy and optimism for what comes next.
What comes next is much on my mind. I’ll start tonight talking about how we’re dealing with COVID. But I’m also going to talk about the larger future of our schools. I know it sounds strange to say it now, as we’re still in this pandemic — but we have a rare opportunity to do some truly vital things for our children. So after some updates, I’ll talk about what I believe is a chance to change the future.
Let’s start with those updates.
II. COVID updates
The whole country has been wrestling with the Delta variant of COVID-19. Delta is more easily transmitted and dangerous. Getting vaccinated is the single most important thing you can do to keep everyone safe. If you’re 12 years or older, please, do what I and millions of others have safely done, and get vaccinated. IPS staff, there’s a $300 bonus for doing that and letting us know by the end of this month!
Our top priority is safety. We require everyone inside our buildings to wear masks, and we’ve set up classrooms and eating spaces to allow for maximum distancing, as the CDC recommends. We’ve created continued learning options for students who have to quarantine and have invested in learning platforms and technology to support those options.
We’re all constantly learning about COVID-19, and updating our measures. Everything is laid out on our website, where we’re also tracking cases so everyone knows what’s happening.
IV. This moment
So, with all that occupying our thoughts and emotions, and the many changes we continue to have to navigate even now, why am I standing in front of you and saying we need to talk about the future?
Because I can’t have the honor of leading this incredible IPS community day in and day out and not be optimistic. And because we have a moment that may never come again. A moment that happens when the lines of need and opportunity cross. I refuse to miss it. As my kids would cringe to hear me say, I’m here for it.
Sometimes, we don’t choose the moment — the moment chooses us. I’ll say more, but in short: it’s an intersection of one-time funds, urgent needs, and commitments not to go back to an old, not-great normal after this pandemic.
My starting point is a deep faith in the power of education — and a belief that all our children can have that opportunity in a way they never have before.
I grew up in my mother’s classroom — she was a teacher before she became a principal. My grandfather was one of the first Black principals in my hometown of Evansville. My grandmother was a teacher’s assistant. My other grandma was my Sunday School teacher. All of them taught me that education has the power to change lives. And our schools do that, every day. If you know the names of Senator Richard Lugar, the writer Kurt Vonnegut, or the opera singer Angela Brown, or Shawn Smith, superintendent of the Lawrence Township Schools, or Deana Perry, Tihesha Guthrie, and Lauren Franklin, all IPS Principals — ask where they went to school.
But we’ve not yet delivered on that full potential for all our kids — to give all of them a shot at excellence. Truth is, school districts in this country weren’t originally designed to lift every child to her full potential. They were designed to sort children into different kinds of futures. And that sorting had everything to do with neighborhood, race, gender and wealth.
I’ll quote from Emma Lou Thornbrough, the Indiana historian, describing our district a century ago: “In the upper grades of all elementary Indianapolis schools, girls received lessons in sewing and cooking, boys elementary lessons in carpentry and the use of tools. For Negro children, these courses were regarded as of particular importance as vocational training since it was expected that most of the girls would earn a living in domestic service and the boys in some sort of manual labor. Black girls began sewing lessons in the third grade and were also given training in laundry work and housekeeping, including lessons in dusting and sweeping, as well as cooking. Boys had lessons in shoe repairing.”
That’s where we began. And, as an institution within education, we’ve spent decades reinforcing a structure for sorting different futures for different children.
Now, I believe, we have a chance to design afresh. To create new blueprints that celebrate our diversity and the possibility of all our children. To build a family of schools that doesn’t sort, but
offers choices. To ask our children and families where they’re going, rather than telling them. To end the fiction that excellence can exist without equity.
What would that look like? To have a family of schools that treated every one of our kids like children of privilege? Who might choose to become a painter or a poet, a plumber or a programmer?
We’d make sure they walked into a building that was safe and warm in every sense, the kind of building that shows children we think they, and their learning, matter. A place where students see themselves represented in what’s displayed on the walls and in their classrooms. A place where they are seen and valued and loved. With classes and unexpected offerings that are challenging in the best sense, pushing their minds to go further. Learning through meaningful projects or collaborative learning with their peers? Absolutely! A place where adults support them in finding their own purpose, and in being healthy in their minds and bodies. Where the rigor of science and the beauty of art are standard offerings, where kids come excited about journeys of exploration. Where teachers see all their students as capable of excellence, and have the supports they need to be excellent in their craft.
Many of us have been in a school like this before, and we know that feeling. You can’t see it and it’s hard to even describe, but it’s a feeling you get, not soon after walking through the doors or being greeted by a staff member, and it’s a feeling of not just joy, but of connection and community.
A school that no one would see as a risk, or a sacrifice, or a trade-off. A school that any family would be delighted to send their children to because everything about that school communicated to their child their inherent value and worth.
All that. In every neighborhood and every school in Indianapolis Public Schools.
For too many families, that’s not yet the reality they see and feel today.
V. The challenge before us
I talk with so many parents who want to know that their kids are going to be ok, that they’ll have security and comfort, that they’ll go further than we did. That they’ll have good choices in their lives. That’s our job as grown-ups. But we aren’t yet fulfilling that promise.
A wise leader once said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
So let’s confront some facts.
Economic mobility — the ability to rise from where you started in life — is worse here than almost any other city in the Midwest, and among the worst in our country. According to a report this year from IUPUI, children from low-income households who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1980s went on to earn an average of $27,000 a year — the same as their parents did. It’s the task of our generation to change that.
For our kids to have good choices, they have to be ready, with the skills that will make them designers and leaders, readers and innovators, critical thinkers and decision-makers. They have to be prepared for the path they’ve chosen — whether that’s college, or some other kind of training for a rewarding career. But only some of our students leave our schools ready in those ways.
We aspire for every student in our high schools to complete a Future Ready Pathway that will set them up for real-world success. Today, only a third of our students graduate having completed a pathway that gives them that preparation but, starting next school year, 100 percent of our freshmen will choose one and get started. That’s just one example of how we can build a different future for our students.
Similarly, we know we have fantastic programs that set our kids on a path to college, and professional careers, like International Baccalaureate and Reggio Emilia. However, when we examine who most benefits from these models, what we find is that while almost three-quarters of IPS’s K-8 students identify as students of color, only 41% of students in these programs identify as students of color. There’s an opportunity here to imagine what kinds of school models — new or existing — that we want to see across our district in order to ensure access for all students. And we have the opportunity to create that vision together.
You can look at the academic data from IPS, and quite frankly, across our state, and see how these racial disparities play out in the outcomes. Those disparities existed before anyone had heard of COVID-19, which has both revealed and deepened inequities.
Over the past year, as we all navigated COVID, student attendance (whether in-person or virtual) dropped by 10 percent. Our students’ learning suffered badly too — the number of students at the lowest level of proficiency grew by 18 percent in math and 12 percent in English Language Arts. Proficiency gaps grew for Black, Latino, low-income, and English-Language Learner students. Referrals for mental health supports have increased by 12% so far this year. I will not sugar-coat this — those are big impacts on our kids’ learning and well-being.
That’s where we begin.
But we are equal to the challenge.
In the face of brutal facts, my confidence has never waned. Because I know what we can do. I know who we are, as a team, as a community, as a family.
We’re in this together, in what Dr. King called an inescapable network of mutuality. And the time for change is here.
Why now? A few reasons.
The first reason is our iron-clad commitment not to go back to the old, pre-pandemic normal. The pandemic hurt us. But it’s also forced us to learn new approaches. One of our principals, Andrea Hunley, said it so well in a New York Times interview: “This is my 10th year as a school administrator, and I have never felt such a high level of energy around transforming education. We had to cope through the pandemic. We had to adjust all these different practices. And I feel from teachers, from parents, from the kids: We’re not going back to the way that things used to be.”
Second is the extraordinary, but brief, infusion of federal COVID recovery funds. These funds won’t support long-term expenditures, like new positions or pay raises, because they disappear after three years. But they allow us to begin considering shifts in our offerings, our systems, our facilities, that have long been out of reach.
Emergency Federal funds for IPS district schools total $213 million, and the last of those dollars must be spent by September 2024. We’re investing immediately in accelerating learning. We’re continuing to ensure every student access to a device and the internet. We’re making our buildings safer to deal with COVID, and bringing on more nurses. But at the same time, we’re not going to miss the chance to put these funds toward changes that matter for the long-term.
The third reason is that we have to make systemic, structural changes now, because our long-term budget isn’t sustainable. This isn’t new, but it’s a problem we have to face.
Over the past several years, we’ve done some things that were unarguably vital, but that increased our costs. We’ve built supports for high-need students, we’ve invested in high-quality curriculum, and we’ve given raises to staff, not just because they deserve it, but because we can’t function if we can’t compete for talent. Funding from the state hasn’t kept up, because much larger increases have gone to districts with significantly less poverty, a truly regressive pattern that confuses equality with equity, which we’re continuing to fight. Statewide, Total Tuition Support has increased 21% since 2013–14, while the IPS share has grown only 6%. Our citizens generously approved a funding referendum a couple of years ago — but that met only part of the need. We’ve made reductions at the Central Office and we’ve recognized savings over time in areas like transportation, energy management, and staffing.
Yet, ultimately, our budget line is headed in the wrong direction. There’s a lot more to understanding our budget, and we’ll be having that conversation as a community. But the literal bottom line is, if we change nothing, we’ll go into the red in 2028. That may sound like a long way away. And we have continued to prove our ability to shift and change throughout the course of this pandemic. But the time to make structural changes is now, while we have time for a thoughtful conversation that involves our whole community.
We start that conversation tonight.
It’s true that the causes of our budget strain lie partly in decisions made by local and regional government. Somehow, children can have fundamentally different resources in their schools because they live 30 minutes apart — and the most astounding part is that we accept that as normal.
But the fact is that our situation today reflects choices we made, and didn’t make, here in IPS. Now is the time to plot a course that will ensure our children’s future. We’re going to make those decisions in our district. And we need to have a citywide conversation about those choices. With everything on the table for discussion.
As it stands today, our elementary school principals are often forced to make choices that they shouldn’t have to. Between art, music, technology, or physical education. Most schools can afford only to do one or two of those. We heard from our community in the recent ESSER town hall meetings, a desire for more vibrant and active school libraries and media centers. But, our current constrained offerings don’t allow us to create the best conditions to cultivate the many strengths and interests we know our children have. It’s limiting at a very early stage.
A tight budget is also a big reason we aren’t fully meeting the demand and offering the diversity of advanced courses in the later years of school.
Our budget constraints also limit the opportunities of our teachers. I know well the benefits that come from time to plan collaboratively, to connect about students who need extra help. Our teachers too often don’t have those opportunities to collaborate in their building with someone else who shares the same content and grade level.
Those budget challenges also affect our facilities. You remember I said every student deserves a safe, warm building that shows our esteem for learning? Well, after a thorough analysis by independent architects and engineers in 2020, nearly a quarter of our buildings were graded a poor or unsatisfactory. None scored excellent.
If we want to change all that, we need to come together around a plan. And the need is only going to get more pronounced.
We could kick these problems down the road, say we’ve got enough on our hands.
But I think we are capable of more. And a chance like this won’t likely come again in my lifetime. A chance not to fiddle around the edges, but to rebuild, to create the school system our children deserve… a plan that embodies excellence, justice, and sustainability.
When I was selected as your superintendent, my mother gave me a plaque, which sits behind me every day in my office. A scripture verse, from Jeremiah. I’ll read it to you:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
That time to make our plans is now… plans to give us all hope, for all of our future.
To reinvent, rebuild, redesign — rethinking the shape of our district, how we spend resources, how we build anew and use and improve the buildings we have, how we make sure excellent offerings exist for all of our students in all of our neighborhoods.
That’s a lot in this pandemic moment. I thought hard about whether I would bring this question to you today. But I believe we’re capable of doing important things under imperfect conditions. Together.
We’ll come to you over the months ahead to make decisions in partnership and with the voices of our community at the center. To design in keeping with our values. We’ll take the time to make sure our IPS community is heard.
What is clear is the end point — a district that serves all our students with excellence, warmth, support and love, sustainably — excellence together with and because of equity. A district that will never again sort children’s possibilities.
VI. Promises I’ll make to you today
This is our chance.
And as we begin, I want to be clear that there’s a bunch of stuff we’re not waiting on, that we’re putting into place immediately to accelerate learning for our students and to support both children and adults in this enormously challenging time. We’re strengthening supports for our teachers, through partnerships with TNTP and the University of Virginia. We’re making sure every student in every school has rigorous, appropriately challenging curriculum, starting with English Language Arts. We are leveraging key partnerships with organizations like City Connects and Communities in Schools to provide additional resources and support to our schools who need it the most. We are planning to leverage stimulus dollars to offer tutoring and other extended learning opportunities later in this school year. We’re providing racial equity training to every staff member, and making those opportunities available to parents as well.
VII. What it will look like for you, our community, to be involved in this conversation
That’s why, here, tonight, we are launching a year-long process to gather community feedback and perspective. To understand the challenges and trade-offs and solutions. To set a vision, together. To say out loud what we value most for our children’s education, and to make sure our plans and our budget reflect those priorities.
The visioning phase will begin next week with two weeks of community conversations hosted by our school board members. These conversations will be offered both virtually and in-person in community centers and schools throughout the city. Whether you come to a meeting or join virtually, you can dream and scheme along with your neighbors and our IPS School Board. There will be additional ways to engage and lend your voice and vision throughout October.
Following that, responding to what we hear from our community, we’ll begin drafting and sharing potential designs for action, probably after the turn of the year, and then come together around a more complete “Rebuild Stronger” plan before this time next year. At every step, we’ll offer information, including on ways to engage, on our website.
We will continue to focus on cultivating the conditions for our students’ success even as we come together around a new blueprint, for a family of schools that offers more for everyone, more equitably, a sturdy and beautiful home for our children’s hopes. A place where our students will become the leaders, entrepreneurs, visionaries of the future we’ll all live in.
A place where skin color and income tell you nothing about what you’ll achieve.
I cannot promise this will be easy. But I can promise we’ll do this together, and that together we can create something far better than what was before.
The moment has chosen us, and we’ll rise to it.
Thank you and God bless you. Let’s do some dreaming together