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New Indianapolis Fellowships Could Provide Blueprint for K-12 Turnarounds

Paul Hill, the founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, proposes some ideas on how individuals engaged in wholesale transformation of ailing public schools can find—and nurture—talent from within those same school systems and improve school options for all. 

Among the suggestions in a blog post, Conserving Principal and Teacher Talent, is creating autonomous pilot programs by giving select school leaders control over budget, hiring, scheduling, and professional development.

School-level autonomy —the first of five strategies Hill lays out on finding and growing internal talent—is a huge part of a new program underway in the Indianapolis Public Schools that officials are hoping will transform some of its poorly performing schools. The program is featured in the upcoming issue of Education Week. 

Under the Innovation School Fellowship, launched by The Mind Trust —a nonprofit that attracts educators to Indianapolis and trains education leaders—the office of Indianapolis Mayor Gregory Ballard, and the Indianapolis Public Schools, up to three fellows will be chosen this year to take over and run one of the city's poor-performing public schools. Over the next three years, the group hopes to have nine fellows running public schools. 

The Innovation School Fellowship was made possible by Indiana's Public Law 1321, a new law this year that allows individuals from both inside and outside of the school system—teachers, educators, management teams—to come up with designs to run failing schools or allow charter schools to set up shop in under-utilized or unused school buildings. The schools created as a result of these partnerships will be called Innovation Network Schools.

The school district will set benchmarks, and if the management teams do not meet the agreed-upon terms, their contracts can be terminated.

 A key component of the fellowship program is an incubation period—a year in which the fellows will have full access to The Mind Trust's resources and can strengthen their designs, learn about school operations, finance, and governance, visit highly successful schools across the country, and learn from leading local and national education experts.

In an interview earlier this week, Hill said he liked the idea and thinks Indiana's new law and the Innovation School Fellowships could be an example for districts that are embarking on portfolio-type models.

Hill particularly liked the school-level autonomy the law provides and the incubation period the fellowship offers successful candidates to fine-tune their ideas. He also praised the opportunity for teachers, principals and other educators in the system to put forward their proposals to lead schools.

Unsurprisingly, a fair number of the 63 applications The Mind Trust received this week from individuals hoping to lead these new Innovation Network Schools came from teachers and other educators within the Indianapolis Public Schools and surrounding districts, according to The Mind Trust.

Many teachers do not become principals or school leaders because they are often disillusioned by the system's constraints, Hill said, not because they do not have the qualities to take over the position.

But give them the freedom and support, and change can happen, Hill said.

"One thing we have seen in other localities is that there are a lot of teachers who have looked at the life of the principal and say "that's not for me," even though a lot of them may be natural leaders and have everything it takes. But they have seen that being a principal, you don't have the authority you need to get things done," Hill said.

Hill reiterated some of those ideas in his blog post in which he argued that every school system has teachers and leaders "who are skillful, well-prepared, and eager to make a difference."

The challenge for outside groups is to find those internal partners who can help them revolutionize the system. 

Find a full accounting of the five approaches in his blog post. 

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