IPS At-Large School Board Race

IPS board president gets tough challengers in hard-fought at-large race

Indianapolis Public School Board President Annie Roof is outnumbered and will all but certainly be far outspent in her bid to be re-elected to a second four-year term on Nov. 4.

Can she survive? And, if not, will her replacement be more or less likely to push big changes for IPS?

Four challengers, some very well-funded, are making strong pitches to replace her:

  • Former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan who is perhaps the state’s highest profile Democrat who favors reforms like charter schools.
  • David Hampton, the pastor of a large church who has ties to some of the city’s school reform leaders.
  • Josh Owens, a Butler University economics instructor with an interest in market-based reform.
  • Ramon Batts, also a pastor, is a charter school skeptic who coaches IPS sports teams.

Roof, a district graduate and parent of three IPS students, said her grassroots campaign will counter the tens of thousands of dollars some of her opponents are spending. Her at-large seat on the board is the only one of three up for a vote this year that encompasses the whole city, not just certain neighborhoods. With five candidates in what is expected to be a low-turnout race, some see the outcome as unpredictable.

In her four years on the board, Roof has walked a fine line between being a full-fledged member of a voting bloc pushing hard for fast and wide-ranging changes in IPS and an occasional skeptic of some of their plans. She’s been mostly supportive of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who so far in his one-year tenure has worked with some of the district’s traditional critics, such as those in the business community, in ways IPS has sometimes been reluctant to do in recent years.

Annie Roof

“I think that I’m going to reclaim the word reform and call myself a reformer,” Roof said.

Aiming to draw a contrast, Roof said she won’t take out-of-state contributions. She’s raised about $4,200 so far, according to her most recent campaign finance report. By comparison, Sullivan has more than $50,000 and Hampton has more than $20,000. Some of Sullivan’s benefactors are wealthy, and even famous, but not in Indiana — LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and his wife, each gave her $1,000, for example. But most of Sullivan’s contributors are local.

Mary Ann Sullivan
Mary Ann Sullivan

Sullivan shares many of her views about education with Hampton. Both favor the idea of IPS partnering with charter schools. They both have strong ties to the education advocacy community: Sullivan was endorsed by Stand for Children and Hampton has worked with The Mind Trust on education issues. Stand for Children and The Mind Trust both advocate for change in the district.

Sullivan and Hampton also both are pushing for the district to revamp its system for paying teachers and want to see the city expand access to preschool.

Stand for Children’s executive director Justin Ohlemiller mentioned both of the candidates as preferred options in a recent interview with Chalkbeat — but the group only officially endorsed Sullivan.

David Hampton
David Hampton

“It’s a great sign that we’ve got the likes of Mary Ann Sullivan and Dr. David Hampton running to help improve IPS,” Ohlemiller said. “Those are great, high quality leaders.”

But the two have one obvious ideological difference: Hampton sends his child to a private school and favors publicly-funded tuition vouchers that poor children can use to attend private schools. Sullivan voted against creating the voucher program as a state legislator.

Owens is less known to the city’s school reform community, but shares some of the ideology common to that group: he believes students will benefit from stronger connections between IPS and the business community. He argues the business community can better support IPS with stronger connections that provide opportunities for the district’s students.

Owens, who got his start working in analytics and marketing at Angie’s List, said he believes he will push hardest for big changes.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to put more resources in the classroom,” Owens said. “I’m happy to work with whoever feels like they can provide that.”

Josh Owens

There is one flat-out skeptic of the district’s recent reforms in the race: Batts, who coaches sports teams at Arsenal Tech High School and is a former full-time employee of the district. But it’s not clear his message is catching on, at least with people who give money to school board candidates. He  has raised just $525 for his school board campaign so far, according to his latest campaign finance report.

Batts said he said he’s passionate about the impact that parental involvement can make in kids’ lives. He wants to decrease discipline levels for African American boys, which are higher in the district than other groups of students, and reverse the “school to prison pipeline,” he said.

Batts, who ran for the school board in both 2010 and 2012, opposes partnerships between IPS and charter schools and the idea of creating autonomous IPS schools. He’s also skeptical of the Republican-controlled state legislature, and Ferebee’s friendliness to groups he believes want to dismantle the district.

“This experimenting with our children has to stop,” Batts said. “We have to stop looking at them as seats and dollars. We’ve got to change the direction that education is going in our city.”

Other than Batts, the challengers and the incumbent, Roof, share many viewpoints.

When it comes to some of the reforms Sullivan, Hampton and Owens support, Roof’s voting record shows she’s been helping to usher in changes favored by Sullivan, Hampton and Owens during her term, including charter school partnerships and a cut in the number of administrators in IPS’s central office.

Ramon Batts

Roof said she ran for the school board in 2010 in part because of her skepticism of former Superintendent Eugene White’s performance and was seen at the time as a voice for change. She’s usually a part of the board’s now-majority voting bloc that ultimately bought out White’s contract and hired Ferebee.

But that didn’t win her support from Stand for Children or the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, which both chose to endorse Sullivan. Instead sought and gained the support of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which she said sent her a letter endorsing her and promised a contribution of $1,500 for her campaign.

Roof has pushed her view, shared by ISTA, that there is too much standardized testing in schools, and has said she wants higher salaries for IPS teachers.

Being endorsed by the ISTA brought tears to my eyes,” Roof wrote. “In the last six years they have not been given a raise. Four years have been on my watch. To me, it means that we have been open, and honest with one another.”

The election is Nov. 4. To compare candidates’ thoughts on key issues, visit Chalkbeat’s interactive election tracker. Hear from the candidates yourself at a forum tonight at the Central Library featuring the five at-large candidates starting at 5:30 p.m.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.