by Jim Grim
Legislators, city-county government officials, neighborhood leaders, and civic and faith-based representatives joined educators, parents, students, and alumni of James Whitcomb Riley School 43 (JWR) on Jan. 24 to celebrate the successful conclusion of a $10,000 fundraising campaign. Led by alumni to replenish the school media center, the Read, Lead, Succeed campaign amassed $13,885 in donations to update the holdings, says Brenda Vance Paschal, an alumni leader and Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association (BTNA) board member.
The Meridian Street United Methodist Church alone raised $5,000 of the total in one afternoon, Paschal said. “We as a community are trying to create a community of readers,” she added.
The celebration dedicated the Mrs. Gloria D. Jones Book Collection. A popular teacher at JWR and other Indianapolis Public Schools, Jones was the 1981 IPS Teacher of the Year and a 1991 Golden Apple Outstanding Educator. She retired in 1995 and died last year. Daughters Sabae Martin and Evelyn Jones, also alumni, spoke at the event. “We have kids here who can’t read at grade level,” Martin said. “Our mother believed that all children can learn. And reading was very special to her as an educator.”
EQUITY IN LEARNING
Martin, and this event, reflect a cadre of neighborhood volunteers, alumni, and support professionals who help secure learning resources for the school’s 426 students, 95% of whom are children of color. Also a BTNA board member, Martin has served on its education committee since 2013 and, like Paschal, is a persistent advocate for the school at 150 W. 40th St. The committee meets monthly at the Martin Luther King Center, one block east.
“I’ve been in this school every week since school began [in August],” Martin said. “It’s important for community to come alongside the principal, teachers, and parents to help integrate programs to support learning goals and objectives. School 43 is a microcosm of the whole school system,” she added. “What you see here reflects how the district as a whole is doing. School 43 is this area’s traditional IPS neighborhood school and it’s our responsibility to keep it that way.”
Equity is forefront on Martin’s mind. The school’s preschool through grade 8 students have experienced a series of disruptions: multiple leadership changes, ongoing teacher and staff turnover, excessive disciplinary issues, the removal of grades 7 and 8—and their return just two years later. Academic achievement decline aligned with that instability, falling from a state-rated A school in 2012 to an F in 2016, as it remains. Stakeholders questioned the equity of the situation. However, the district’s attention to equity and race provides hope, Martin said. She supports the equity goals because she wants children at this school to have every learning opportunity that children at other schools get. “The library reflected the inequities here,” Paschal said.
The media center had multiple empty bookshelves, lacked a librarian, and saw minimal student use. Thus, the media center and reading tutors became an equity focus for school stakeholders led by alumni. Butler University and Midtown Inc. funded Scholastic Reader magazine for each student in grades K–3. IPS provided a media assistant to staff the underutilized room. Paschal says a certified librarian remains a collective goal—as well as stable leadership and deeper community engagement.
“We became directly supportive of School 43 initially because of the high staff and principal turnover,” Martin explained. Other supporters joined the alumni efforts through the BTNA education committee. It meets monthly at the Martin Luther King Center, a block east of the school. Committee representatives from Horizons, Newfields, the Mayor’s Office, Fairview Presbyterian Church, the Riley Alumni Association, Traders Point Christian Church, NAACP, The Children’s Museum, Midtown Inc., MLK Center, Riley PTA, and IUPUI coordinate tutoring, mentoring, summer camp, afterschool programs, parent engagement, professional development, and college and careers experiences.
COMMUNITY SCHOOL PARTNERS
Allison Luthe joined the committee in 2015 when she became director of the MLK Center. Anthony Bridgeman, then with The Children’s Museum, chaired the committee that took on the “Maple Crossing” Great Places 2020 education component. The focus quickly became School 43. Through the SAVI database system at IUPUI, Bridgeman and Luthe plotted all of the student addresses on a map, she said. None lived north of 42nd Street; all lived in the Crown Hill, Mapleton-Fall Creek, Meridian Highland, and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods.
With the MLK Center’s focus on educating children, empowering families, and building community, facilitating the education committee reflects the Center’s mission. “It is the role of the committee to support the principal and demand attention from the superintendent’s office,” Luthe said. “One person can’t save the school.”
Widely respected education consultant Carole Craig agrees. A member of the National Council of Negro Women, she mentors 7th- and 8th-grade girls at JWR. A retired award-winning teacher, principal, and associate superintendent for human resources at IPS, Craig advises educators to embrace parent and community engagement for results they likely couldn’t achieve otherwise.
“The definition of a public school encompasses the entire community,” Craig said. “That’s why I embrace community schools like James Whitcomb Riley. I have never seen a school that doesn’t benefit from community engagement. When you have all of your community partners providing integrated supports for students and families, and work together with school leadership, it is much easier to reach academic achievement goals.”
Research shows middle school girls of color are most vulnerable to negative experiences, Craig said.
For the past five years, the education committee has collaborated, as possible, with a series of IPS leaders. They began working last year with district leaders Brynn Kardash, transformation zone director, and LaKimba DeSadier, family and community engagement manager. They collaborated on hiring a new principal after the previous one resigned last February. IPS appointed Lauren Johnson, a seasoned education leader in the district who had not been interviewed by the search committee. Johnson had experienced an ultra-challenging leadership role before, and embraces community–school engagement.
“When I saw she had been the chair of the Quality of Life Plan [in the school community she came from], I knew she gets it,” Luthe said. “She is not a Band-Aid. She knows how to hold the district accountable. That accountability and support is required.”
Johnson values school partners and the education committee. “Our community partners have supported us in many ways,” Johnson said. “The National Council of Negro Women provide mentoring and tutoring for our middle school students. 100 Black Men lead our robotics program and provide mentoring for upper elementary and middle school students. Many of our churches and our neighborhood association provide volunteers for our school, hats, gloves, holiday gifts, treats, and prizes for our staff and students. Members of our Real Men Read program read with our 3rd-grade students each week and give them books. One of our churches sponsored professional development for our entire staff. We are continuing to build more partnerships with our colleges and universities, and we look forward to these connections.”
A GREAT—AND SUPPORTIVE—PLACE
A professional development training in January focused on understanding trauma, including teachers’ own, to better engage with students, volunteer Taranza Brown, said. Her employer, Traders Point Christian Church, funded and hosted the training for 40 teachers, school partners, the principal, and other JWR staff. “Teachers said, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know these things. This helps me to look past what the students are sometimes doing,’” Brown said. “Some said this was best professional development they’ve ever had.”
Data suggests such supports help make a difference. In Northwest Evaluation Association quarterly academic assessments of individual student growth and proficiency, 72% of students showed individual achievement growth from the beginning to middle of the year, and 43% met their growth goal, with 2nd grade having the highest percentage of students meeting their individual goals. “Second grade is one of the grades where we have the most volunteers,” Johnson said of the tutors. “We are working to provide more volunteers in other grades.”
Stakeholders also see an improved school climate. “There’s art on the walls,” Martin noted. “There’s a level of positivity. She has enhanced the environment.”
“I know I’ve seen a difference in the kids after school,” Luthe said. “We pick them up and bring them [to the MLK Center]. They’re still what you’d expect for kids, wild and crazy, but they make the afterschool transition easier this year.”
The MLK Center has invested in a liaison, Lacrisha Hollins, to coordinate with educators for data and school day supports and afterschool programming. She plans to help increase parent engagement. “We need to listen to parents, let them feel heard,” she said.
“We want you to connect with us,” Johnson says. “We are your community school. When we call on you, we just want you to say ‘yes,’ because we are committed to continuing the outstanding legacy this school has achieved. Everyone who comes out of James Whitcomb Riley School 43 will be the most excellent in their chosen careers. We want to continue this legacy.”
Jim Grim, director of university/community school partnerships at IUPUI, has lived in Midtown for 33 years. He is a member of the BTNA Great Places education committee.