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Indianapolis superintendent chosen to lead D.C. Public Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis D. Ferebee was selected by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to lead the District’s schools. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Monday named the Indianapolis schools superintendent to be the next leader of D.C. Public Schools, choosing an heir to the educational philosophy that put the city’s classrooms in the national spotlight a decade ago.

Lewis D. Ferebee, who served for five years as superintendent in Indiana’s largest school system, will be the District’s sixth permanent school leader since 2000.

If approved by the D.C. Council, he will preside over a school system that his predecessors transformed into a closely watched experiment in urban education policies.

The District’s schools became laboratories for the accountability movement, praised and scorned for its use of standardized test scores to evaluate students, teachers and schools. And the city enthusiastically embraced charter schools, with nearly half of D.C. students attending institutions that are privately run and publicly funded.

But the 44-year-old Ferebee, who will earn $280,000 a year, arrives at a fraught moment, as the D.C. schools emerge from a year marked by controversy and continue to struggle with a wide gap in achievement between more affluent students and those from low-income families.

“We’re obviously not at a point where we are ready to run a victory lap,” Ferebee said at a news conference Monday. “But we do have a steady foundation that we can build upon.”

Ferebee was one of two finalists for the job, along with Amanda Alexander, who has been with the city’s schools for two decades. Alexander was named interim chancellor in February and built a team of deputies as she guided the District for nine months.

The previous chancellor, ­Antwan Wilson, resigned under pressure in February after city leaders revealed he bypassed the competitive school placement system to transfer his daughter to a high-performing high school.

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In choosing Ferebee, Bowser appears to be signaling that she wants D.C. Public Schools to remain on the course charted by recent chancellors. Ferebee holds education philosophies similar to those of his three predecessors: Wilson, Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee.

“I see us continuing our path of excellence to date,” Ferebee said Sunday evening in an interview. “I don’t have any solutions that are being implemented in Indianapolis that I would say are absolutely necessary and important to the District right now.”

While D.C. schools can point to improvements, the effectiveness of some policies introduced by Henderson and Rhee — who became a national lightning rod — have come into question after an investigation found that 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 received diplomas in violation of city policy, a revelation that undermined the District’s soaring graduation rates.

Ferebee received leadership training at the Broad Academy, an initiative to support urban school superintendents funded by philanthropist and charter school backer Eli Broad. Wilson, D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang and Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education whom Bowser tapped this year, also received training at the Broad Academy.

Bowser heralded Ferebee’s experience, saying it made him the right fit for running the 49,000-student D.C. system. The Indianapolis school system has about 32,000 students.

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“We’re very excited to have found an education leader with a significant amount of experience leading an urban school district similarly situated to ours,” the mayor said. She cited Ferebee’s work redesigning high school education and career and technical education.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee oversaw a cash-strapped system and closed some schools. He said that there is little social mobility in Indianapolis and that the departure of manufacturing jobs forced him to rethink how high schools train students for the workforce.

He dismantled the neighborhood high school system, replacing it with vocational and college preparatory academies that families could choose to attend no matter where they lived.

At the elementary level, he forged partnerships that allow charters to run low-performing schools in the traditional system.

But Ferebee said he would not aim to replicate that work in the District. He said the city’s landscapes are different, and he plans to bolster neighborhood schools as chancellor.

“I am very much committed to our neighborhood school model,” he said. “As I think about the vision for our district and the work that I will lead as chancellor, it is paramount that we have a high-quality school option at every grade level in every neighborhood.”

Ferebee’s work in Indianapolis earned him his share of critics.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said that when Ferebee promoted controversial policies — including handing over control of low-performing schools to charter operators — he didn’t effectively communicate the changes to residents or get their buy-in. The union leader said Ferebee blurred the line between charter and traditional public schools, leaving teachers and residents confused.

Susan Collins — a newly elected Indianapolis School Board commissioner and retired teacher — campaigned against Ferebee’s agenda and ousted the incumbent. She said when charter operators took over low-performing elementary schools, teachers were no longer unionized, angering educators.

“He did the job he was hired to do, although there is some question of whether we want to continue along the path of privatization,” Collins said. “We just want to slow things down and be a little more thoughtful here.”

But Brandon Brown — chief executive of the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit organization that promotes charter schools — said Ferebee brought fast and radical change to city schools that desperately needed it. Dramatic change, Brown said, always breeds critics.

The full measure of Ferebee’s tenure in Indianapolis has yet to be taken, Brown said, but he pointed to improvements in some low-performing elementary schools as evidence of strides made by the system under the superintendent.

“He has an absolutely tremendous legacy here,” Brown said. “He has championed the notion that when you empower school leaders with more autonomy, you get better results, particularly when you have accountability with that autonomy.”

Ferebee, who is expected to start Jan. 31, said he will arrive with no firm agenda and no plans for radical change. Instead, he said, he intends to listen to parents, students and teachers as he works to create desirable schools in every neighborhood.

“For me, the starting point is asking the right questions, not necessarily presenting solutions but really getting into how we will do our work,” he said.

Bowser launched her search for the next schools leader in June. In forums, residents indicated that they sought someone with experience leading an urban school district, familiarity with D.C. schools and an emphasis on closing the achievement gap.

Bowser convened a panel of students, parents, teachers and other leaders to advise her in the selection. She was under pressure from education activists to have a transparent search and follow city law when making her choice.

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As an outsider, Ferebee will have to win over parents and education activists in the District. Many of them told the mayor that they had hoped she would select someone steeped in the city, with knowledge of the District’s neighborhoods and residents.

Mary Riner’s children attended Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle when Alexander was principal, and Riner had advocated for the mayor to give the interim chancellor the job.

“Amanda has a team behind her, and her teachers who were at Ross are now in leadership positions all over the city,” Riner said. “She’s the real deal.”

The panel met with the finalists and questioned them in private Saturday — the first time a selection committee conferred with finalists in the District’s recent history. They provided feedback and recommendations to the mayor Saturday evening.

Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, sat on the mayor’s selection panel and said she was surprised that Ferebee was selected. Many panel members were impressed with Alexander’s interview Saturday, Davis said.

But she said she is optimistic about working with Ferebee and hopes to strengthen the relationship between the union and the school system, continuing strides made under Wilson and Alexander.

“The union is prepared to work with whomever is confirmed as chancellor, and we want to meet with the candidate as soon as possible,” Davis said. “We do not want to take any steps backward.”

The chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee said a hearing on Ferebee’s nomination will not happen until early next year.

“In Mr. Ferebee, the mayor has chosen to nominate an individual from outside,” D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said in a statement. “The vetting of such a candidate should not be taken lightly or hastily.”

Ferebee served in leadership positions in North Carolina’s Guilford County schools, including as regional superintendent. He was a principal and assistant principal in North Carolina and earned a reputation for turning around low-performing schools.

Ferebee is married and has a son in high school. He said he would move his family to the District, where he has relatives, next year. He said his son will attend the neighborhood high school or participate in the school lottery system, which places students in charter and traditional public schools.