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Indianapolis schools
Kimberly Neal, who is designing an academically demanding new school in Indianapolis, calls inner-city students “underestimated” rather than underperforming. Credit: Photo courtesy of Kimberly Neal

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On the metrics that many school reformers pay closest attention to, Kimberly Neal’s students racked up amazing achievements. High test scores and graduation rates, broad college acceptances, and all from inner-city students who would normally be expected to lag behind – students Neal calls “underestimated” rather than underperforming.

But Neal had an awakening over the last few years. She learned more about the school-to-prison pipeline and the role that strict school discipline often plays in it. That style of discipline has been a hallmark at the charter schools that defined the first part of her career.

Neal got her start in Teach for America in 2002 and founded a charter high school in Chicago in 2008 that became one of the city’s best. She has spent almost two decades working in schools that primarily serve low-income students of color and she only recently came to understand that they operate in starkly different ways from equally high-performing schools serving wealthy, white students. She realized that even though her schools exceeded expectations in every metric she measured, they weren’t necessarily doing right by their students.

“It was disheartening for me to recognize the flaws in the educational reform movement and the role that I had played in the inequity of how we educate black and brown kids.”

“It was disheartening for me to recognize the flaws in the educational reform movement and the role that I had played in the inequity of how we educate black and brown kids,” Neal said.

Now Neal is starting over, with support from The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education nonprofit. As a Mind Trust Innovation School Fellow, Neal has spent the last year designing a new high school that will serve the predominantly black and brown students in Indianapolis Public Schools. While Neal is an outsider to Indianapolis, as a black, first-generation college graduate from St. Louis, she expects to have a lot in common with the Midwestern kids she’ll be serving. And that’s something The Mind Trust has looked for in its fellows since launching the program six years ago.

The Indianapolis nonprofit has supported fellows in launching 18 Innovation Network Schools in the city. According to Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, about two-thirds of these fellows are people of color. And so far, they have hired a more racially diverse group of teachers than those in Indianapolis Public Schools overall. Researchers have found academic benefits to black and Latino students who have teachers who share their race or ethnicity, but the nation’s student population is far more diverse than its predominantly white teaching force. Brown said an important goal of the Mind Trust fellowship program is to increase the diversity of the leaders who are running Indianapolis schools.

Related: Is the effort to curb strict discipline going too far, too fast?

The fellowship also aims to help school leaders design schools that specifically address the needs of Indianapolis students. In Neal’s case, after researching the city’s schools, she thought the city needed a gifted and talented high school that would prioritize serving students of color. But last year, in her first year as a Mind Trust fellow, she had conversations with more than 100 community leaders and parents who just didn’t consider gifted and talented services a priority.

Instead, they wanted high-performing schools where black and brown kids, in particular, can feel like they belong. That’s what Neal is trying to build.

Her school, Believe-Circle City, is scheduled to open for the 2020-2021 school year, following a second year of her design fellowship. It will be college- and career-focused, asking students to choose a career concentration at the end of their ninth-grade year and pursue an associate degree at the same time as they work toward their high school diploma. It will emphasize the development of social and emotional skills and cultural competency as part of the curriculum.

And when it comes to discipline, teachers will set clear expectations for ninth graders in terms of how they should dress and interact with their peers, but Neal wants to eventually give kids freedom and hope that they will rise to the occasion. By 11th or 12th grade, she said, students should get a fair amount of autonomy.

“There should not be a demerit system, we shouldn’t be walking kids to the bathrooms, we shouldn’t be talking to students about chewing gum or what shoes they have on,” Neal said. “At that point they should know what to do and how to do it. We expect that from their affluent peers, but we don’t expect it in urban education. We hand-hold and set expectations their entire educational career, and then expect them to go out and be competitive.”

“We can’t, in good conscience, say that we are preparing them for success after school [when] we’re not giving them the opportunity to demonstrate that muscle while they’re with us.”

Data show that is not happening, Neal said. She points to significant gaps in income and educational attainment across racial and ethnic groups.

As part of the Mind Trust fellowship, Neal visited the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, where only 12 percent of students are black or Latino. She found the visit jarring.

“The agency and autonomy that those students are expected to have far outweighed what we expect from our students,” Neal said. “We can’t, in good conscience, say that we are preparing them for success after school [when] we’re not giving them the opportunity to demonstrate that muscle while they’re with us.”

Related: OPINION: When it comes to raising school achievement, is love in the mix?

Believe-Circle City will join a promising group of Innovation Network Schools in Indianapolis Public Schools. The first such schools opened during the 2015-16 school year with flexibilities more typically granted to charter schools, even though these schools fall under the oversight of the traditional school district. At the start of the last school year, there were 20 Innovation Network Schools serving about 25 percent of the district’s students.

Brown said these schools deserve a fair amount of credit for reversing a decades-long decline in enrollment in Indianapolis Public Schools. And a study from CREDO at Stanford University, an education policy research institute, found early evidence that students in Innovation Network Schools are outperforming their peers in the wider district. On average, the study found that during the 2016-17 school year, students in Innovation Network Schools had improved their language arts and math skills so much that it was as if they’d had 53 additional days of learning in language arts and 89 additional days in math.

The Mind Trust recently named its latest class of Innovation School Fellows, a new crop of three ambitious school leaders, primed to follow Neal’s lead in exploring alternative ways to improve educational opportunity in Indianapolis.

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