by Jim Grim
A transformation is taking place at James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis Public School 43 in Midtown. After a turbulent few years of growing chaos, multiple school leaders, and departing teachers and staff, “this is a whole different school,” one neighbor said at a Family and Community Discussion on Nov. 10. Parents and others agree.
“The climate and atmosphere is much better,” parent Monique Anderson said. “I’m up there quite a lot. I volunteer as much as I can. Last year it was pretty chaotic, with kids roaming the halls. The new administration has set a positive tone. There are clear expectations and consequences.”
A member of the parent leadership team, Anderson said she and her husband met with district leadership downtown often last year. Her son Kavon’s classroom had started the fall semester in 2015 with 18 students but ended the school year with 43 children in the room, after two of the three teachers for his grade level left the school. This year the situation has improved.
“Kavon has some special needs,” Anderson explained. “I’m very happy with the special education services he’s receiving and the accommodations his teachers have been making. I think the teachers are doing the best they can. Kavon’s happy and enjoys going to school.” Anderson’s husband, Gaywin, has joined the superintendent’s advisory council. “My husband and I advocate for School 43 on every level,” she added.
Leading this school transformation is new principal Bakari Posey, an individual who used to ride his bike as a kid around the former building at 150 W. 40th St., and played with friends in nearby Tarkington Park. He has been working with a team of teachers and staff since even before officially being hired July 1. He is assisted by new vice principal Jessica Barnes. The team initially focused on school community culture to help guide plans for positive climate and appropriate instructional techniques. They created a professional learning community focused on Lost at School, a book by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., about collaborative and proactive instructional practice. The experience helped develop a cohesive approach for the new school year.
“It’s always a challenge coming into a place where there has been little consistency,” Posey said. “Our focus has been on raising the bar with expectations in instruction and classroom behavior. The first quarter we have been setting the tone, building a positive culture. Now, we’re adding more focus on instruction, determining what students don’t get academically and what further instruction they need.”
Posey has spent considerable time coaching teachers and doing evaluations, “trying to provide as much support and feedback as possible,” he said. With a lack of support and consistency over the years, sometimes teachers work in deficits, he added. “Conversations are around benchmarks data, with teachers learning, growing, adapting as they go.”
He knows what high quality instruction looks like. And, setting high expectations is nothing new for Posey, who attended St. Thomas Aquinas School and Cathedral High School. He came to IPS from Tindley Accelerated Schools, charter schools with a reputation for high expectations.
A key element in the school transformation has been building relationships with the students themselves. Posey holds morning meetings with students, where he coaches kids and quizzes them at breakfast: “What is 3 times 7?” he said he might ask a fourth-grader. It helps with discipline, too. “Developing relationships with the children themselves reduces the need to call parents—when you hold students themselves accountable,” he added.
Meanwhile, community support has become a hallmark of James Whitcomb Riley School 43. The Mapleton Crossing Great Place 2020 and Butler/Tarkington Neighborhood Association education committees have focused attention on making improvements at the school over the past year. Groups that provide students and their families an array of supports for learning—mentoring, tutoring, parent engagement—include the Peace Learning Center, 100 Black Men, Butler University, IUPUI, Midtown Indianapolis Inc., the Martin Luther King Center, and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis as well as Unitarian Universalist, North United Methodist, Fairview Presbyterian, and Traders Point Christian churches. In addition, nonprofit AYS Inc. provides an onsite afterschool program, while some children participate in MLK Center and area faith-based activities. Some of those organizations’ representatives were among the more than 50 participants—including parents, grandparents, alumni, community members, and IPS staff—in the Family and Community Discussion. Table discussions throughout the gymnasium focused on “what parents want for their child’s school experience.”
Positive responses praised:
- More structure this year at the school
- The ability to get extra support for how to help children’s learning at home
- Stable building leadership and the PreK program
- The Parent Involvement Educator (Agnes Shelton), who offers multiple services and provides community engagement above and beyond the norm
Recommendations for improvement include:
- Better utilize community resources like The Children’s Museum
- More teacher–student interaction
- Better understanding by teachers of outside trauma children and families experience
- Retain teachers and staff
- Organize community supports for greater cultural responsiveness
- Increase family engagement by varying opportunity times
The discussion ended with a plea from Posey: “Please encourage at least one other parent to participate in our next family/community event.”
Such family and community engagement is helpful, Posey has said, especially as his team prepares for the return of grades 7 and 8 next fall when the district takes those classes out of high school buildings. The school community also knows it has a long way to go with academic achievement; only 5.3% of the students passed the ISTEP+ test last spring, down from 16.2% the previous year. However, Posey said, second-quarter student benchmark results show promise: this year’s 4th grade results, for example, showed double-digit growth for almost all students.
“The staff by-and-large understands what we need to do,” he said, and noted the staff continuously strives to do better at helping the students to do better. “There has been growth in a number of teachers,” Posey added. “If you want to be the best basketball player, you constantly have to hone your craft. It is the same for instruction.”
Jim Grim, director of university/community school partnerships at IUPUI, has lived in Midtown for 30 years. He has been widely published and specializes in education and community engagement topics.
A version of this article appeared in the December ’16/January ’17 issue of the magazine.