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Ask Me Anything: Aleesia Johnson, Superintendent Of IPS

Indianapolis Public Schools promoted Johnson to its top position this summer. As the first African–American woman to lead the struggling district, she has high hopes.

What’s one of your top priorities as superintendent?
We’re doing a big push around racial equity. Like many districts, we see disparities in performance across different racial groups. So tackling head-on why those disparities exist and what we might need to do differently to address them is really important.

People often confuse “equity” and “equality.” Can you clarify the differences in the concepts and how you plan to address them at IPS?
Equity is when everyone gets what they need, and we are taking into consideration the context in which people exist. Equality is assuming that everyone is at the same start line. So equity is not making that assumption, but considering where people are, and getting our students what they need based on that. When you look at the racial history of our country, pretty much across every institution and sector—housing, criminal justice, social services, healthcare—you see trends play out in the same way. We need to recognize that and actively work to disrupt it. Which might mean that not everybody is getting the same thing because not everybody faces the same level of challenge.

You’re often referred to as a “reformer” in the press. What does that mean in public education today?
I don’t think it’s easily defined. Our funding model—you won’t find many people who will argue that doesn’t need to be reformed. Teacher compensation—you’ll find lots of people who think that needs to be reformed. Quite frankly, you’ll find lots of folks in agreement on different parts of our education system that need to be reformed, but they aren’t necessarily aligned with this connotation of a “reformer.”

What negative connotation of the word are people reacting to?
Often, it’s used to describe someone who wants to co-opt the public school system and turn it into something different. Generally, it describes someone who’s supportive of charter schools or voucher programs. And it’s true that I helped establish our innovation schools. I came from a charter-school background. So from that vantage point, you could certainly describe me as such. But I have also never been one to say there is one silver-bullet solution to solving the problems we face in education. Obviously, I’m not leading a traditional—if that’s even a thing—school district. We face a lot of challenges, and there are things we need to do better.

Quite frankly, you’ll find lots of folks in agreement on different parts of our education system that need to be reformed, but they aren’t necessarily aligned with this connotation of a “reformer.”

What were the results of last year’s reduction of IPS high schools from seven to four? Do you have any data on how grades were impacted?
We don’t have hard data yet. I have a superintendent student advisory council, and we had our student leaders come in and talk to the board for an update. The highlight was that the students appreciated that there were new folks for them to meet, and there was a real effort to make sure the communities came together in a way that felt productive. The students seemed excited about the different college and career academy offerings. Just having that diversity of choice is positive. But one year in, those communities are still gelling.

Speaking with a reporter recently about the strong feelings people have on magnet schools and charter schools, you called for “respectful disagreement.” What does that look like to you?
I think it’s listening, first and foremost. And not just listening to jump to some foregone conclusion, but actually listening for where there might be places of alignment. Perhaps you disagree with me on the how, but maybe there’s a nugget of what I’m proposing—or what someone who I disagree with is proposing—that could actually work. We’re not necessarily going to walk away and be totally in sync, but I believe you want the best for our kids, and we both want to get to the same end goal of great schools.

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