The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Lewis D. Ferebee the leader to close D.C.’s achievement gap? His time in the Midwest may provide clues.

Teacher’s assistant Sandra Reyes teaches Spanish to kindergarten students in a bilingual class at Global Preparatory Academy at Riverside 44 in Indianapolis. (AJ Mast/For The Washington Post)

INDIANAPOLIS — Lewis D. Ferebee was four years into his tenure as Indianapolis schools superintendent when his “out-of-the-box” approach drew public praise from the nation’s top education official.

Eager to show her commitment to public education before a gathering of urban school leaders, Betsy DeVos, the newly minted education secretary, hailed Indianapolis for surrendering many of its elementary schools to private operators even as they remained part of the traditional public system.

“This type of proposal gives everyone in the community a greater say — and greater responsibility — in the education of their children,” DeVos said in the March 2017 speech.

The face of that transformation: Ferebee, a rising star from the same corner of the education world that counts former D.C. schools chiefs Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson as luminaries.

Now, Ferebee, 44, has been thrust into the vortex of D.C. education politics. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) chose him to lead the city’s controversy-marred schools, and he arrived last week as acting chancellor. The first public hearing on his nomination — the D.C. Council must approve Bowser’s pick — is set for Wednesday.

Ferebee built a national reputation for collaborating with charter schools and disrupting the status quo as he overhauled Indianapolis’s approach to public education. In addition to exploding the old model of elementary schools, he shuttered three high schools with dwindling enrollment and turned four other high schools into career- and college-focused academies.

But he left a complicated and unfinished legacy in this state capital, according to student performance data and interviews with Indianapolis residents, teachers, politicians and parents.

Black students fell further behind their white peers on standardized tests during Ferebee’s five-year stint as superintendent. Passing rates for nearly every demographic group dropped from 2015 to 2018, the heart of Ferebee’s time as Indianapolis superintendent — and the decline was steepest for students of color.

In 2018, 14 percent of black students in third through eighth grades passed both the math and English sections of their tests. Forty-two percent of white students passed both portions of their exams.

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Passing rates declined at more than half of the system’s schools in 2018.

“A lot of people act like this academic decline didn’t happen, but it bothers me,” said Jim Grim, director of community school partnerships at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “People are focused on other shiny, bright objects.”

Ferebee stands by his record in Indianapolis’s 32,000-student school system and says he is confident he has installed strong leaders who will help close the achievement gap — even as he begins his work in the District.

“My track record is one where I have shown that the most talented and effective school leaders are teaching the kids who need it the most,” he said. “And that, I think, is one of the most influential strategies for closing the achievement gap.”

In the waning days of Ferebee’s time in Indianapolis, resistance to his overhaul intensified, and voters took out their displeasure by electing two candidates who were critical of the direction of the school system.

While acknowledging the divide in passing rates, Ferebee sees a reason to be hopeful. Even if students are not passing the standardized tests, he said, they are getting closer to success. To pass, students must reach a certain score, and students at some of Indianapolis’s lowest-performing schools are making up ground faster than students at other schools, city data show.

Bowser has pointed to Ferebee’s work in high schools to explain why she thinks he is the best choice to lead the District’s school system — although Ferebee has said repeatedly he does not intend to replicate in Washington the drastic measures he introduced in Indianapolis.

In Indiana’s capital, he dismantled neighborhood high schools, allowing students to choose a career- or college-prep academy that reflected their interests. The high school model switched in fall 2018, so it is too early to measure its effectiveness.

But while the graduation rate grew by about 10 percentage points under Ferebee — to 82 percent in 2018 — the number of 10th-graders who pass proficiency exams required to graduate has remained persistently low. Students can retake the test multiple times during their junior and senior years to earn diplomas, and they can qualify for waivers, which allow students to graduate even if they do not meet all the requirements.

During Ferebee’s tenure, more students took the SAT and hit benchmarks showing they were ready for college or careers, according to state and city data, and fewer students have obtained waivers to graduate.

Ferebee’s supporters argue Indianapolis had long been struggling and needed someone who would drastically reimagine the schools. And they are willing to wait to see if the results catch up with the policies Ferebee implemented.

“We didn’t just wake up six years ago with a struggling school system. That occurred over time,” said Anthony Mason, president of the Indianapolis Urban League, the local chapter of the national civil rights organization. “Whether you agree with them or not, Ferebee had to make changes.”

'Innovation schools'

When Ferebee took over Indianapolis Public Schools in 2013, the cash-strapped system was struggling. Families were fleeing for charter schools and nearby districts. They were also using vouchers, which let families transfer public dollars to attend private and religious schools. Teachers were ditching Indianapolis for surrounding townships, where the pay was higher. Some city schools were in such disarray the state took control.

At the same time, state and local Republican officials were pushing laws to expand vouchers and making the state more friendly to charter schools.

In Indianapolis, the Mind Trust — an advocacy group that receives funding from national charter backers — was floating a controversial idea to have some of the city’s lowest-performing elementary schools operate like charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

The campuses — dubbed “innovation schools” — would be run by nonprofit organizations but remain part of the public school system. It was a model somewhere between a traditional public school and a charter school, allowing schools to have the independence that comes with being a charter while reaping the benefits of being part of a large system.

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But the city needed to find the right leader to enact its education vision, and Indianapolis Superintendent Eugene White was viewed as a critic of charter schools. So the school board ousted him in 2013 and voted in Ferebee, who had worked as a teacher, principal and administrator in North Carolina.

“He inherited what was a very old-line, traditional system,” said Michael O’Connor, president of the city’s school board. “It was a school system that needed shaking up.”

With lobbying from Ferebee and city hall, the Indiana legislature passed a law in 2014 that created innovation schools — among the most controversial aspects of Ferebee’s time as superintendent.

But it is a private group — the Mind Trust — that selects and trains the operators of the schools, with the approval of the city’s school board members. Principals at traditional public and charter schools can seek to convert their campuses to the innovation model.

In 2018, 27 percent of students in Indianapolis Public Schools attended innovation campuses, and the Mind Trust plans to add more.

Brandon Brown, chief executive of the Mind Trust, points to city data showing that, overall, test scores rose for students at innovation schools while declining at schools run by the traditional system.

“I would credit Dr. Ferebee’s vision and leadership for creating a multitude of partnerships that just weren’t there before he got there,” Brown said. “We are very confident that the early results for innovation schools are extremely promising.”

Teachers at innovation schools are not unionized, meaning the spread of those schools weakened teacher unions — and spurred backlash over Ferebee’s plans.

And with no union, each innovation school can establish its own salaries, calendars and staffing models.

“There hasn’t been a lot of value [placed] in the union voice,” said Teresa Meredith, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, a union. “They haven’t been part of the conversation.”

And, sometimes, teachers simply left.

That is what happened when Mariama Shaheed took over a floundering elementary school and turned it into a Spanish-language immersion school. Shaheed said most of the teachers there departed after she imposed a rigorous curriculum and stricter discipline rules.

“Everyone here is here because we handpicked them because they were mission-aligned and fit the model,” Shaheed said.

The Indianapolis school board largely supported Ferebee and helped him craft the city’s education agenda and push through his policies.

But recently, opposition has emerged and become more effective. Groups such as the IPS Community Coalition, which formed in 2017, organized residents to speak out against innovation schools and some of Ferebee’s other policies.

And there have been consequences at the ballot box: Two Indianapolis school board members were ousted in November’s election by challengers who made thwarting Ferebee’s agenda central to their campaigns.

The superintendent did score a win in November, when voters passed two tax increases — which he lobbied the community to approve — to boost education funding.

But he continues to encounter backlash for his handling of a 2016 sexual abuse case involving a teacher and student. He is a defendant in three civil lawsuits that raise questions about whether he met his obligation to ensure abuse allegations are reported to the state’s child protective services agency.

Christina Smith — a member of the IPS Community Coalition and the mother of two elementary school students — said she decided to transfer her children from Cold Spring School after it became an innovation campus.

She disliked the school’s principal and thought the innovation model would give the principal even more power. And she still does not understand how the switch to an innovation school would benefit her children.

“People kept telling me that kids and parents won’t really know the difference,” Smith said. “So why do we need it? No one could give a sound reason as to why it’s necessary.”

Impressive results

By the time he was in his mid-20s, Ferebee was a principal, nurturing a reputation as a turnaround artist who found ways to achieve remarkable test-score gains at traditionally struggling schools.

At Fairview Elementary in Guilford County, N.C., just 45 percent of the school’s students — predominantly black and from low-income families — were proficient in reading in 2001, just before Ferebee took the helm. Three years later, that rate had jumped to 69 percent. Math proficiency soared even higher, from 53 percent to 87 percent.

The results were so impressive they drew the state’s governor at the time to the school. Mike Easley (D) was running for reelection, with education a centerpiece of his bid.

Ferebee rode his success at Fairview to his next job, landing at a middle school, where he was named the county’s principal of the year. He was later promoted to a job supervising principals of the county’s lowest-performing schools.

Former Guilford superintendent Terry Grier, who hired Ferebee at Fairview and promoted him to central administration, attributed Ferebee’s success to snagging the most talented teachers early in the hiring cycle and to his willingness to hold employees accountable.

“He has a very short tolerance for people who make excuses about why kids can’t learn,” Grier said.

But Fairview’s success did not last. The school slid back to its low-performing status soon after Ferebee departed, although exact comparisons are difficult because state standardized tests were revised.

The News & Record newspaper in North Carolina described Fairview as struggling with low performance from 2007, two years after Ferebee left, to 2014, when half the staff and the principal were replaced.

“I don’t know what shifted in staffing and strategy,” Ferebee said in an interview this month. “I know that oftentimes when a leader transitions and a new leader comes, sometimes they choose to adopt a new strategy.”

Ferebee’s time in North Carolina shaped how he approached his tenure in Indianapolis. He has said in interviews he succeeded in North Carolina because his bosses gave him the freedom to make decisions.

He tried to do the same in the Midwest.

Principals in Indianapolis can decide how they spend the money their schools are allocated each year. Many school systems, including the District’s, have strict formulas that dictate how principals spend their budgets.

Bakari Posey, a new principal at a traditional elementary and middle school where most students come from low-income families, said he used his funding to hire an additional physical education teacher and to purchase equipment such as stationary bikes attached to desks, so students can move while they work in class — measures designed to ease discipline problems.

“The equipment is fun, and it gets our bodies ready to learn,” said 8-year-old A’Zariya Stephens, a second-grader at James Whitcomb Riley School 43.

A gap to bridge

In the months before Bowser made her pick for chancellor, the District convened community forums and focus groups to learn what families desired in a school system leader. The message was loud and clear: They wanted the next chancellor to bridge the persistent, yawning proficiency gap between white students and students of color.

That’s also the sentiment from the D.C. Council, which has promised a rigorous confirmation process even as it is expected to approve Bowser’s choice.

“The achievement gap is embarrassing, and it is growing,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said in a January speech as he was sworn in for a new term. “Education, public education, is supposed to be the great equalizer in our society.”

This month, Ferebee — who is slated to earn $280,000 a year and whose wife and teenage son will eventually move to the District — visited D.C. schools. He attended meetings of education coalitions in Wards 7 and 8, the two wards east of the Anacostia River with the highest concentration of poverty in the city.

Eboni-Rose Thompson, chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, said Ferebee appeared receptive to residents’ concerns. Her hope: that Ferebee ensures students in even the poorest neighborhoods have a strong school in their backyards.

If Ferebee is going to succeed in closing the District’s achievement gap, boosting performance and addressing social challenges in Ward 7 and 8 will be paramount.

“I think he has done his homework and understands the challenges we face east of the river,” Tina Fletcher, chair of the Ward 8 Education Council, said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Emma Brown and Peter Jamison contributed to this report.