The Mind Trust’s Long Road to School Revolution
A local nonprofit has made Indy a national model for education reform—gaining unprecedented power along the way. But behind every success the group’s approach has helped fund lies a debate: Should outside parties have this much influence on public schools?
The pitches came Shark Tank–style, with teams of entrepreneurs climbing the Indiana Landmarks Center stage to deliver their wild-and-crazy-but-just-might-work concepts to a panel of judges—a scene not uncommon these days in startup-happy Indianapolis. The contestants quoted Steve Jobs, clicked through slick slide decks, and name-checked tech giants like Google and Facebook. But something about this April afternoon was different: These groups weren’t hawking the next great apps, groundbreaking gadgets, or better beer koozies. They were proposing ideas that would radically transform public schools.
The stakes were high. The winning team would take home $50,000 and earn the chance to compete for $250,000 in seed money to launch a new Indianapolis charter school. Instead of Mark Cuban wheeling and dealing for a stake in the action, an unlikely player stood ready to bankroll the winner: The Mind Trust, a nonprofit venture capital fund for education. When the local organization announced this Charter School Innovation Summit last fall, 36 applications came in from around the world—a testament to the reputation The Mind Trust has fashioned for Indianapolis as a place willing to experiment with the way schools function.
To wit, a few of the visions presented that day: Stemnasium, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school that would teach kids to code and build apps. Ubique Academy, at which students would roam the city’s public spaces—rather than a classroom—to learn. And HackSchool, where scholars would tinker a couple of hours each day with 3-D printers and modeling software in a “socially conscious maker space.” Ideas that make student newspapers and keyboarding class sound quaint.
In the audience, David Harris, the city’s former charter school director under Bart Peterson, beamed like a proud father. The Mind Trust had been his wild-and-crazy notion, and this competition coincided with the group’s 10-year anniversary. In the last decade, Harris’s baby had raised tens of millions of dollars to support big thinkers; lured to Indy national education groups like Teach for America; attracted 3,800 applicants from 48 states and 36 countries to its three school incubator programs; launched or expanded five charter school networks; and arguably influenced not only the hiring of an Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent willing to listen to their suggestions, but the election of a Mind Trust–friendly school board as well. Education reforms approved by the state legislature in recent years catalyzed what the nonprofit had set in motion: the evolution of Indy—in particular, an IPS system facing “F”-grade pass rates and state test scores—into one of the country’s most active laboratories for educational change, one other urban school systems from Cincinnati to Kansas City now look to as a national model.
As the adage goes, with great risk comes great reward, and The Mind Trust’s momentum has paid dividends in the form of unprecedented power and pull, with more on the way—nearly $15 million in grants from the likes of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation will be announced this month. But not everyone is enamored. Critics including the NAACP and the informal IPS Research Group fear the sway it wields. The Mind Trust’s approach, as detractors see it, inadvertently has spawned or supported initiatives that are dismantling public education, further segregating city schools, and encouraging gentrification.
During a community forum at a westside church this past summer, 50 or so critics of the group gathered to air their frustrations. The meeting concluded with an ominous benediction by Nate Williams, an assistant professor of educational studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois—a battle cry that threatens to derail the nonprofit’s work to save IPS.
“Just remember,” Williams told the gathering, “don’t trust The Mind Trust.”
A few days before the schoolhouse Shark Tank, Harris stood at the front of a giant green-and-yellow bus holding a microphone. As the bus rolled along on a tour of high-performing schools—a new charter called Hope Academy, which helps high school students recover from drug and alcohol addictions, and Francis W. Parker School 56, an IPS Montessori program—The Mind Trust’s CEO talked up the work of the nonprofit to the two dozen young professionals on board.
“Great schools aren’t a matter of type,” Harris said. “They are a matter of people. And we have such a visionary leader in [IPS superintendent] Dr. Ferebee. He’s been aggressive and courageous. Change is hard. You can’t bring about change without some people getting upset. He’s really been steadfast in supporting the kinds of things that need to happen. And what that really means is supporting new leaders to launch new schools.” Harris has doled out his spiel to a slew of bold-faced names over the years, from Eli Lilly Foundation president Rob Smith to philanthropist Marianne Glick. Winsome and articulate, he has won the hearts, minds, and dollars of many deep-pocketed donors to his mission, the seeds of which were planted back in 1997, by chance.
At the time, Harris was five months out of law school and working at the firm then known as Baker & Daniels. A former Governor’s Fellow in Evan Bayh’s administration, the Northwestern grad was eager to get involved in public service. Fred Glass, then a partner at the firm, recruited Harris to work on the mayoral campaign of Bart Peterson, who had been Bayh’s chief of staff. Peterson told Harris he needed policy research in two key areas: crime and education.
“Which one do you want?” he asked Harris.
“I don’t know,” Harris replied. “Education?”
Peterson asked him to write a report on school reform, including charter schools. At the time, Indianapolis Public Schools were struggling, and there was no consensus among community leaders or state lawmakers on how to proceed. Harris looked at academic studies, education websites, and press clips from around the country, and quickly became impassioned. He crafted a speech titled “Why We Need Charter Schools,” even though Peterson hadn’t requested the remarks. But the mayor decided to deliver them anyway in a September 2000 address to Marion County’s 11 school superintendents.
“There was no normal applause,” Harris says of the chilly reception. “But it made [Peterson] central to the issue.” Every news article from that moment on linked the mayor to his support for charters.
The first big breakthrough came the next year. For a handful of sessions, then–state senator Teresa Lubbers, a Republican, had tried unsuccessfully to pass charter school legislation, facing opposition from her own party and the Indiana State Teachers Association. But in May 2001, after making some concessions, Lubbers and Peterson managed to get the union to go along with the bill, which gave certain authorities, including mayors, the ability to sponsor charters.
By 2002, Peterson had authorized the city’s first three charter schools. Harris was tasked with creating the Office of Charter Schools to vet the quality of the new institutions. He put a rigorous system in place to hold the charters accountable, one that resulted in accolades and a record of academic progress for the schools.
In 2005, Harris had an idea to push Indy’s educational agenda beyond just charters. Why not create a venture capital fund to greenlight new school-reform nonprofits? He sketched out a five-year plan for the concept, which launched the next year as The Mind Trust.
A string of big moves followed a whopping seven-figure investment for operating costs by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. Harris recruited to the city The New Teacher Project, which allows professionals in other fields to enter the classroom through an alternative credentialing process. A Teach for America chapter arrived with 46 fellows, filling Indy’s schools with top college graduates from across the country. Then came Stand for Children, an advocacy group.
In 2011, another break: Then-Governor Mitch Daniels signed a sweeping package of education reforms into law, creating the nation’s largest school choice program. The Mind Trust made its biggest splash that same year with a manifesto titled “Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform Indianapolis Public Schools.” The 160-page blueprint outlined how to totally overhaul an urban school system. IPS struggled with ailing metrics, including a 58 percent graduation rate. At the district’s pace of improvement, the report warned, boosting that figure would take two decades.
Instead, The Mind Trust suggested a more radical approach, one that included universal pre-K and charter-like oversight. “Opportunity Schools,” as they called them then, “would be given unprecedented freedom over staffing, budgets, culture, and curriculum,” said the report, but would also be held to high standards. The nonprofit envisioned that, over time, all schools in IPS would use the model.
The proposal, much like Harris’s speech for Peterson in 2000, reshaped public debate around how to address IPS’s problems. “The Mind Trust has done this city a tremendous favor with today’s release of its dramatic plan to overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools,” The Indianapolis Star editorial board wrote that December. “This is the start of what needs to be a long conversation.”
But crucial players, including then–IPS superintendent Eugene White, long critical of charters and their role in snagging kids away from the school system, were not on board. The next spring, White responded with his own strategy, one that defended the district’s work—a resistance that likely sealed his fate. By then, Mind Trust–backed groups had already begun putting elements in place to pull off the new plan, gaining more and more clout in the meantime. And White, one of the last roadblocks, would soon be on his way out.
Gayle Cosby never imagined she would find herself at the center of a battle over the future of education in Indianapolis. The Arsenal Tech grad had lived on the near-east side for three decades. Her children also went to IPS. Her husband, Brandon, served as the principal of Shortridge Magnet High School. In 2007, after finishing a career as a social worker, she began teaching in the district.
As a special-education teacher, Cosby enjoyed more flexibility than a regular educator. One year, at IPS School 48, she piloted a self-contained classroom for children with mild cognitive disabilities, capped at 10 students, with an assistant. The lower student-to-teacher ratio and small-group instruction paid off: The average academic growth in the pilot was the equivalent of one-and-a-half school years. If this kind of autonomy was working for her, she wondered, why couldn’t it work for other teachers?
It would take an advocate, though, to push for that sort of change. So in 2012, Cosby decided to run for an open IPS school board seat in District 2, which included troubled eastside schools such as George H. Fisher School 93, John Marshall Community High School, and Francis Scott Key School 103. White had fired Cosby’s husband that year for insubordination, alleging he failed to implement a plan to improve the school’s test scores (though Cosby now calls the imbroglio “just a speck on the horizon” of reasons she made a bid for the seat). Regardless, she soon discovered that knocking on doors would not be enough to garner votes. Thanks to The Mind Trust–backed advocacy group Stand for Children, which had begun putting up big money for reform-friendly school board candidates (the only year it did so directly), the political terrain had shifted—Cosby needed cash.
As Cosby recalls, a Stand for Children representative offered a proposal over a meal: If Cosby wanted the advocacy group’s support, she would need to take on a Stand-approved campaign manager to guide her through November. She agreed, and the donations started to roll in, including one for $5,000 from Stand’s political action committee. All told, Cosby took in nearly $80,000—at the time, unheard-of money for a local school board race. On Election Day, her campaign was so robust that she marshaled 60 volunteers to polling stations across the city. She took her seat by 12,000 or so votes, becoming one of four reform-minded school board candidates to win their races that year.
Before long, though, Cosby began to have doubts about The Mind Trust and its pro-reform ways. In December 2012, she attended a meeting at Lilly with other school board members. The purpose of the gathering, she says, was to introduce the Neighborhoods of Educational Opportunity plan, an initiative being drafted by the mayor’s Office of Educational Innovation in partnership with various groups, including The Mind Trust. The plan was supposed to create high-quality schools to lure families back to IPS. In Cosby’s eyes, though, it appeared to support gentrification.
“Why are we looking at public education to reverse white flight?” she says. “We should be striving for diversity and equity on behalf of the city. Right now, IPS has several schools that are disproportionately white. Those schools are in areas that are gentrifying.” Cosby points to schools like Center for Inquiry School 84, in Meridian-Kessler; Butler Lab School, in Meridian Park; and the soon-to-open CFI at School 70 downtown. CFI 84, an award-winning magnet option and one of the district’s most highly sought-after schools, is 83.4 percent white, with only 4.8 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-price meals, a typical measure of a school’s socioeconomic makeup (that figure is 70 percent district-wide). Butler Lab School is 60.6 percent white, with 27.7 percent on free or reduced-price meal plans. The wait list for CFI programs is more than 300 students long.
Soon after the meeting, in January 2013, Cosby and the new reform-friendly school board negotiated White’s retirement. By July, they had hired Ferebee, the dulcet-spoken former chief of staff for Durham Public Schools in North Carolina with a reputation for being willing to work with charters. At the new superintendent’s first meeting with Harris—“part of knowing the trailblazers,” Ferebee says—he told The Mind Trust CEO that he supported many of the nonprofit’s plans for IPS. Whatever had been in place wasn’t working: The district had 40 failing “D” or “F” schools.
Another school board election cycle ramped up in 2014. “The one thing that we really need now is a board that will really embrace reforms that will advance the district,” Harris told the Star days before the vote. Checks poured into campaign war chests, including from national figures such as LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. The 10 candidates raised almost $169,000 that year; 80 percent of that went to the three people whose elections were supported by Stand’s independent campaign. The three incumbents collected just over $4,000—combined.
“Is Stand for Children buying [the] IPS School Board election?” asked the headline of one Indianapolis Recorder column by Amos Brown, a frequent critic of The Mind Trust. The playing field had certainly changed. From 2010 to 2014, spending on school board races spiked 600 percent, and that’s just in reported political contributions. (Stand gives money from a 501(c)(4) nonprofit branch that has different reporting requirements.)
Stand for Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller declines to say how much the organization spent in total on its backed candidates during the 2012 and 2014 cycles. “I don’t know that the number is relevant to the overall discussion,” he says, adding, “we’re not going to hand over our playbook when we’re not required to.” But he does believe Stand should support races that are often afterthoughts to voters. “Families are making the decision of whether to move to Center Township based on our IPS schools. Companies are making the decision of whether to move to Indianapolis based on the quality of our schools. If you look at that fact, combined with IPS being a [$500 million-plus] organization, it matters. These are schools that will decide what the city looks like next.”
When the dust settled in November 2014, the three Stand-endorsed candidates ousted their opponents. The board held a vote that next month, before the new members were to join. Ferebee and the reformers wanted to try out a new concept: the innovation network school—the kind of collaboration called for in The Mind Trust’s Opportunity Schools report. They would tap Earl Phalen, a former Mind Trust fellow who had launched the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school, to take over perennial “F”-grade Francis Scott Key School 103, in Cosby’s district.
Pending board approval, Phalen would be free to hire and fire teachers and adopt a new curriculum thanks to a law passed by Indiana’s General Assembly in 2014. The measure allows districts to reinvent struggling schools as autonomous entities free from many regulations but still held to high standards. The law affords the same leeway to any IPS school given a “D” or “F” grade for three consecutive years. With one member absent, the board arrived at a 3–3 stalemate, and Cosby joined the dissenters.
“What clearly happened tonight is you have outgoing board members who have made decisions out of spite in the past, and that trend continues, which speaks to why three weeks from now there will be new leadership on the board,” Stand’s Ohlemiller told education news outlet Chalkbeat Indiana.
Once the new members were installed in January 2015, the board took another vote. Under the plan to convert School 103, Phalen would be paid a management fee that would initially equal 10 percent of the per-student state allotment of tax dollars the school would receive to operate—a fee that, if enrollment held, might hit a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the school year. The initiative passed 6 to 1, with Cosby as the lone “no.” She was too worried—in the push to experiment, what if the children got left behind?
That fall, Earl Phalen rebranded Francis Scott Key 103 as PLA @ 103, named after his Phalen Leadership Academies. Now, a full school year into the experiment, the innovation network school could serve as a snapshot of all The Mind Trust hopes to accomplish.
Yoked with a reputation for roiling violence, crushing poverty, and declining enrollment, 103 had begun to fracture before the district’s intervention. Students fled its then-dingy confines for nearby charters, and enrollment dwindled from 527 students to 341. In the 2014–15 school year, 73 fights erupted in its classrooms, hallways, and cafeteria—more than any of IPS’s elementary schools and most of its high schools. Only 9.6 percent of the third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders passed the ISTEP: 11 students. By virtually every education metric available, the school wheezed for air.
After getting the green light, Phalen hired 42 new teachers. Using a $385,000 grant from the Glick Family Foundation, he and principal Agnes Aleobua overhauled the school, replacing rusty, 1970s-era desks, scouring bathrooms, carpeting over cold tile, and painting the walls bright colors. Most classrooms would have both a teacher and a teacher’s assistant. Even weeks into the school year, Phalen was willing to part ways with those who didn’t seem to be thriving—which occurred with at least one educator. “We cannot waste a year of a child’s life while a teacher tries to figure out if they want to do this,” he says.
Changing the mindset of the students was the next step. One morning last winter, Phalen joined Aleobua in the media center. At a table, a huddle of children, dressed in school uniforms of red-and-black collared shirts and khaki pants or skirts, assembled for a makeshift morning news show, an addition Aleobua and Phalen thought would provide the kids with a sense of community and exposure to technology. The broadcast beamed into 103’s classrooms, which bore names such as “Wabash” and “Butler,” cementing in the young minds the names of Indiana colleges and universities they might one day attend. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the entire school sang another oath, one they had committed to memory over the last six months:
Here at PLA @ 103, we pledge today to do our best, in reading, math, and all the rest. We promise to obey the rules, in our classrooms and everywhere in our school. We’ll respect ourselves and others, too, and take pride in doing our best in all that we do!
Next, one of the student anchors offered a final piece of instruction: “Here at PLA @ 103, we must remember: Hands are for helping, not for hitting. Have a great day, Falcons.”
The pledge and the mantra were part of the antidote to heal the sick elementary. “Coming in the first month of school, it was eye-opening,” Aleobua says. “We were very, very focused on culture.” First and foremost: a safe and orderly environment—teaching students how to walk in the hallway, the appropriate voice level in the cafeteria, how to respectfully get the teacher’s attention. In classes, the students struggled to work silently for longer than two minutes.
After the news show, Phalen, a broad-shouldered, bald, Yale and Harvard Law graduate, walked the school’s hallways. For a while, he commuted from Boston to manage his Indianapolis projects: Phalen Leadership Academy; PLA @ 103; and a summer-school program. Now he lives in Indy. During his visits to 103, he pokes his head into classrooms to observe the diverse population—83 percent are black, 10 percent are Hispanic, and the remaining 7 percent are Asian, white, or multiracial. It was Black History Month, and the kids were learning about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. By the door of Room 220, students had hung aspirations of their own on little pieces of paper:
My dream is for all families to be whole.
My dream is to never go to jail.
My dream is that no one will be poor.
In a kindergarten class, students practiced counting syllables in the word “banana.” In another room, rows of still heads hovered over textbooks. When a few students talked and laughed in the hallway, a scene that might have been replaced by a fight last year, Phalen beelined toward them. “Scholars, scholars—we’re in the hallways, so voices are off.” The hubbub stopped. “Excellent job,” Phalen responded. “Excellent job.”
When it comes to PLA @ 103’s education component, “we still have a lot of work to do,” Aleobua says. A quarter of the school’s sixth-graders still read at a second-grade or lower level, and in any given classroom of 25 students, 20 are a year or more behind. On the other hand, enrollment has surged to 400 boys and girls, says Phalen, and the students’ IREAD proficiency rate more than doubled to 61.2 percent.
There is a small but vocal faction of critics, though, who worry about the potential unintended consequences of innovation network schools like PLA @ 103, regardless of whether they succeed academically.
In a spring meeting at Purpose of Life Ministries on the west side, roughly four dozen IPS parents, community members, and school board nominees gathered in the church’s sanctuary to discuss ways to take down The Mind Trust. The gathering, which began as a candidate forum in the lead-up to this November’s election, soon morphed into a political strategy session, with James Scheurich, a professor of urban-education studies at IUPUI, and Knox College’s Nate Williams holding court with an anti–Mind Trust PowerPoint presentation.
One of the first slides pictured a Trojan horse. “The Mind Trust is a Trojan horse,” Williams said to the crowd, who, at times during the presentation, voiced affirmations and catcalled. “Like a Trojan horse,” another slide read, “The Mind Trust is DECEPTIVE about who it is, what its ultimate goals are, and who it represents.”
In the eyes of critics like Scheurich and Williams, who got involved in the movement against The Mind Trust through his work with the IPS Research Group, the nonprofit is in effect taking over IPS, supporting those who would take over schools for an alleged profit, and encouraging segregation through gentrification, all after stacking the school board in their favor. Another slide claimed to show how much money the campaigns of the 2012 and 2014 winning school board members—purportedly supported by The Mind Trust’s network—obtained during that period, a figure the presentation pegged at almost $400,000. As the slides went on, more whistles rang out. “Who can raise this kind of money?” Scheurich asked. “Certainly, not many of us.”
As the biggest education player in town, it’s natural The Mind Trust would also wear the biggest target. Some criticisms have merit, and others far less so. As a nonprofit, for instance, the organization can’t really pad its bottom line. “We have never taken a single penny from a school or a school district, but have instead invested millions of dollars to support school districts,” Harris says. And though Harris’s salary and other benefits, which equaled $273,390 in 2014, also came under fire during the slide show, that total is in line with national guidelines for nonprofits, given The Mind Trust’s balance sheet. Harris also has faced questions about sending his children to Park Tudor instead of the IPS system he’s so passionate about improving. While he understands the criticism, Harris says he, like other parents, reserves the right to select a school for his children; plus, his wife, Marion, teaches there.
Chrystal Ratcliffe, branch president of the Indianapolis NAACP, shares some of the same concerns about The Mind Trust’s approach as Williams and Scheurich. “Children of color and poverty-stricken children are being left behind,” she says. Larry Vaughn, who plans to challenge Diane Arnold for her District 4 seat this year, also told those at the meeting this summer that IPS, influenced by The Mind Trust, is “segregating kids into charter schools and innovation schools.” Ferebee, for his part, says this isn’t happening. Regarding the popular CFI schools, the superintendent wrote in a July editorial in The Indianapolis Star that “there is absolutely no ‘plan’ to keep affluent or white families in our district.” Of the 24 IPS schools earning “A” or “B” grades in 2015, 13 were magnet schools, and 11 were traditional neighborhood schools. Twenty of those schools, he argued, had 51 percent minority enrollment.
Then there’s the worry that five-figure school-board race spending—previously to the tune of $2,000 to $3,000 per candidate—is creating a barrier to entry for those community members interested in running. The speed at which school reformers move, too, has become a legitimate concern, considering some of the unforced errors that have already occurred. In the summer of 2013, for instance, Jeremy Baugh, a principal at the first of Phalen’s charter schools incubated by The Mind Trust, hired a man who had been convicted in Marion County on charges of forgery and fraud for taking more than $28,000 while serving as president of an IPS parent-teacher association. Phalen says that now he is contracting with a firm to vet potential hires. “Every year we look at the process and tighten the screws,” he says.
Like an actual venture capital firm, not every bet made by The Mind Trust has proven successful, either. Of the three teams or individuals who received the nonprofit’s $100,000 fellowship to launch new schools in 2014, one—the original principal of PLA @ 103, who was Phalen’s co-fellow on the project—was replaced, and the other two winners have yet to see their plans come to fruition. Aleesia Johnson, IPS’s first innovation officer, a position created by Ferebee, acknowledges that the pace of reforms has been dizzying. Mayor Joe Hogsett telegraphed a possible slowdown on authorizing new charter schools earlier this year due to similar concerns. “I think the emphasis needs to be on quality over and against quantity,” Hogsett said in January after a meeting with Marion County superintendents, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal. “The emphasis will not be on adding more charter schools just to add more, but rather, holding the current charters appropriately accountable and making sure they have the resources they need to be successful.”
“We’re making a lot of change pretty quickly,” Johnson says. “People felt that, Whoa, this is crazy fast. The train is leaving the station. That makes us scared. That makes us wonder about it. There are a lot of myths out there, a lot of conspiracy theories about charters and privatization. There are times that people, rightfully so, feel that, in the African-American community, things are being done to them and not with them—that’s happened time and time again. This is something that can feel like that.”
To win over critics and build consensus before the next school board election, Harris says The Mind Trust will launch a series of small question-and-answer sessions aimed at dispelling rumors and concerns. He concedes that the nonprofit failed to engage stakeholders early on, leading to a vacuum of information. “We didn’t anticipate that our organization would have the profile it did, so doing community engagement seven years ago would have been a little different than it is today,” says Harris. “But I wish we would have done that earlier and sooner and made that more of a priority.”
On the last day of class at George H. Fisher School 93, an elementary not far from PLA @ 103 on the east side, Lewis Ferebee left his central office to check on one of the biggest bets of his career.
Like 103, School 93 has also recently converted to an innovation network school after receiving $50,000 from The Mind Trust to begin the planning. The district had already been tinkering with 93’s formula, making it a part of Project Restore, a decade-long IPS program that has turned two “F” schools into “A” schools. A team of teachers rebooted the way things worked at School 93, starting weekly curriculum and professional development meetings with staff, instituting more testing, and making student scores public on a bulletin board near the front of the school. The accountability seemed to be working: 93’s grade rose from an “F” to a “C” last school year. “It’s like the oil change in your vehicle,” says Ferebee. “There are regular checkpoints on student mastery, so we’re not waiting until the end of the quarter, the end of the year. They know on a week-to-week basis where students are.”
By converting to an innovation network school, 93 will join Cold Spring, a magnet focusing on environmental science, as the first IPS schools without a failing grade to do so. “This is our own recipe,” Ferebee says of the combining of methodologies. The school board seems to like IPS’s direction; in February, Ferebee received a 6 percent raise.
“I think, rightfully so, there was some concern that this may be an experiment that may not be successful,” says Ferebee of IPS’s partnership with The Mind Trust and embrace of the charter school mentality. “To that argument, I would just add, until you try, until you take that plunge, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But I know that we can’t continue with the status quo.”
Last year, The Mind Trust pledged to convert 15 percent of IPS schools to its innovation network model, a plan that’s underway. In the meantime, the nonprofit’s influence only stands to expand. That nearly $15 million in donations coming this month will go toward funding The Mind Trust’s projects. “We’re looking for a couple of things,” says Neerav Kingsland, a senior education fellow with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston-based philanthropy ponying up one of the grants. “The Mind Trust has them all—great government leadership with the school board and Dr. Ferebee. Indy is ahead of many cities. Also, a nonprofit sector that’s strong—having an organization that is a savvy leader and grant maker. It feels like a special moment in the city right now.”
Another school board election will unfold in November, with four seats up for grabs—including Cosby’s. Though she’s leaving the board, her consternation remains. “I worry about the degree to which we are giving away our children’s right to a public education,” she says.
But even in a city that has become a cheerleader for school choice, parents aren’t always aware of their choices, or the facts that should factor into them. That hurdle might diminish in November 2017, the proposed launch date of Enroll Indy, a website and app that would replace IPS’s current lottery system with an algorithm. If approved, the program would make Indy one of the first cities in the nation to have an independent, unified enrollment system. The website would feature a school finder where parents could search and filter options (including charters) by variables such as academic performance, grades enrolled, sports, transportation options, and distance from their home. Caitlin Hannon—a Stand for Children–endorsed IPS school board member who has since resigned—developed Enroll Indy with the help of a plum Mind Trust education entrepreneurial fellowship. “It’s hard for a two-parent household with college degrees to figure out K–12 choices, let alone the single parent with multiple kids, two jobs, and whose first language isn’t English,” Hannon says. “When they’re trying to navigate what schools work for them, that is incredibly complicated and cumbersome. Driving to individual schools. Figuring out all of the different deadlines. Figuring out what applications and paperwork you need.”
It’s a revolutionary idea—as though The Mind Trust would put its faith and power behind any other kind.