Indy Superintendent Sets High Goals
Indiana Writers Group column for March 15 and thereafter
(A mug shot of Superintendent White is available on request)
by Andrea Neal
On a recent Sunday night, when so many were gathered around TV sets to watch the Oscars, some 500 Indianapolis residents gathered to hear Superintendent Eugene White lay out his vision for Indianapolis Public Schools. And to pray for him.
The connection between the two — public school and prayer — was apparent from the start. We don’t need prayer in school to set things right with our children, White told an audience of worshippers representing many churches across the city. We need people of faith working in schools and neighborhoods to teach children from their toddler years on. We need families taking kids to church on Sunday to learn values different from those taught by the media. We need churches employing volunteer and financial resources to supplement what can be done by a school district with a $24 million budget gap. "The magic," White said to great applause, "is having prayers in the people who come to public schools."
White was featured preacher at the March 5 Celebration of Hope, a twice-a-year inter-racial and communitywide worship service. For White, it was an opportunity to seek community support for his vision to turn one of the lowest-performing school systems in Indiana into the best urban school district in the country — by 2010.
The standing ovation White received suggested he was preaching to the choir. But in the larger community, politicians, business leaders and taxpayers seem hopeful that White will achieve the transformation of IPS his predecessors failed to deliver.
In his March 8 State of the City address, Mayor Bart Peterson praised White’s "extraordinary leadership" and urged all citizens to do their part in making White’s vision reality. Can he do it? "Absolutely," says Kelly Bentley, a school board member and mother of an IPS junior. Bentley voted against White last June when he was picked from four finalists to head the state’s largest school corporation.
Bentley doesn’t agree with White on everything, such as his controversial proposal to restructure high school athletics. But she applauds his priorities and appreciates his leadership style. "He has incredibly high expectations," she said.
His tough talk, willingness to shake up school principals and staff, and insistence that parents be held accountable for their children’s behavior have gained White fans in a district that is 58 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 81 percent poor.
White has urged churches throughout Indianapolis to take an active role in education. "The public schools do not own the children," he said. "They belong to the parents, the community."
Yet too many children are educated by the movies and TV shows they watch and the music lyrics they hear, White said, a point that seemed fitting on a night when Hollywood’s big names had gathered to celebrate their creative genius.
White told of visiting an elementary school classroom that week to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss whose books include one called, "What Was I Scared of?" Too many children are like a young boy in that classroom who told White that his ideas about what’s scary come from violent video games like "Friday the 13th." "It’s a terrible thing to let the media educate your children because the media has no soul," White said.
Although some may dismiss White’s goals as unrealistic, none can fault his ambition. His district’s ISTEP scores are second lowest of Indiana’s urban systems. In language arts, the IPS passage rate is 49.6 percent, compared with Gary, the lowest at 42.4; South Bend, 54.3; Fort Wayne, 60.2; and Evansville, 65.4.
The IPS scores have been inching up for several years, the result of a major reading initiative in the lower grades and the adoption of a more phonics-based instructional program. Though the literacy emphasis preceded White, Bentley praises him for recognizing its merits and for building upon it and other ongoing reforms, such as the move to smaller schools and magnet programs.
In a moving scene near the end of the Celebration of Hope, Pastor Maudine Wordlaw invited White to the altar where he was surrounded by children holding arms outreached in prayer. Many were students in IPS, but others came from nearby township schools and private schools in Marion County.
It was a symbolic representation of what White will need to achieve his goal of making IPS the nation’s best urban school district: support from IPS families, buy-in from the larger community, help from faith-based partners, prayers from the people and the courage to admit they make a difference.
Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.