LOCAL SCHOOL, GLOBAL VIEW: Mary E. Nicholson CFI School 70

by Cheryl Reed

If you’re called into the principal’s office at Mary E. Nicholson Center for Inquiry School 70, 510 E. 46th Street, you may be surprised by what feels like a cozy family room. An aquarium bubbles beside a small red sofa. Toys perfect for fidgety children (or adults) sit in see-through drawers, inviting you to choose a favorite. Artwork fills the walls and corners. The principal’s desk is aimed toward a wall, far away from where she clearly wants you to be.

“I don’t like to sit at a big desk across from a parent or a child or someone on our staff,” says Principal Christine Foxen Collier. Instead, her workstation is a window into the soul of a woman who has spent more than 18 years of her over 40-year career working in leadership in the Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry (CFI) program. She was ending a decade as principal at CFI 84 when long waiting lists spurred IPS to create a fourth CFI location at School 70.

With CFI 84 a stone’s throw away, Collier became the School 70 principal’s mentor. But part of the success of the CFI schools’ growth was a strategic effort to have CFI-experienced staff join the existing new school team. So, Collier made what she said was a bittersweet move. She loved CFI 84, but the prospect of replicating at School 70 a program she’d helped create was too good to pass up. She brought seven CFI-experienced teachers with her.

Understanding CFI requires a 25-year-rewind to when Collier was one of 20 IPS teachers chosen to explore a Lilly Endowment–funded pilot program called “Exchange Intensive Teaching.” For two years she and her cohorts studied a new way to teach that was thematic and required critical thinking and student involvement and accountability. The teachers spent two years in classrooms, teaching for two weeks at a time in this new manner while the teachers they temporarily replaced learned about the program.

Collier had been thinking that the standard curriculum she’d been teaching wasn’t exciting for students or teachers. At the end of the pilot, convinced they’d found something better, she and others “decided to design a school.”

They began in 1993 within a wing of IPS School 92, with a few dozen students. Seven years later, they had a whole building for CFI 2 downtown. In 2006, CFI opened in Midtown’s School 84, at 440 E. 57th St., and CFI 27 opened in 2011 in the Kennedy-King neighborhood. Fast-forward to today, where Collier has operated from her cozy office at CFI 70 since 2016, and continues to chalk up successes.

In June, CFI 70 middle school teacher Alexandria Stewart was named IPS Teacher of the Year. In July, CFI 70 earned its International Baccalaureate® (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP) status—a year sooner than the process normally takes.

But Collier still isn’t entirely satisfied. Demand had prompted CFI’s expansion, but some people were concerned CFI 70’s student body would not reflect IPS’s 80 percent minority makeup. Opened as a K–5 school, CFI 70 this year will also host grades 6 and 7. Collier’s 7th-graders—most of whom were with her in CFI 70’s first year—include 19 minority students (Latinx, black, or multiracial) and 10 white students. Her kindergarten class of 47 has only 11 minority students.

Collier made a special effort to reach out to every neighborhood within the one-half-mile radius around CFI 70 to be sure families knew they had priority in the district lottery if they wanted a spot. In addition to traditional outreach, she sent postcards, had a parent liaison make phone calls, and opened the school for visits and tours. “We want a reflection of the community,” Collier said. “Especially as an IB school, we want to teach our students to be global citizens. You can’t do that in isolation.”

Collier seems up to the challenge of increasing diversity in part because of the school’s larger community. “When we were in that wing of School 92, the parents who turned their children over to us didn’t have a school to visit or anyone to interview to know what our school would be like,” she said. “They took a chance on us, and their continued involvement was key to our success. That’s the same kind of spirit I feel we have here.”

Since its launch, CFI 70 has been part of IPS’s Racial Equity pilot program, which is working to eliminate racial disproportionality and disparity and ensure that all IPS students have the same opportunity to achieve.

Bettina and Zach Gillen’s children are charter members of CFI 70 and part of the organizing committee of Global Fest, an annual event designed to celebrate diverse cultures as well as to raise money for the school. The daylong community event (held this year on Saturday, Sept. 15, on the grounds of Northwood Christian Church, 4550 N. Central Ave.) takes to heart the school’s mission of creating contributors to our global society. “As a parent, I’ve loved how the CFI program really develops the whole child,” said Bettina Gillen. “It’s not just about gaining knowledge. It’s about using that knowledge to make a difference in our world. Every year our 5th graders do exhibition projects where they pick a social or environmental issue they are passionate about, research it, make an action plan, and reflect on it.”

For example, after learning more about homelessness in Indianapolis from guest speakers at the school, 11-year-old Niall Gillen was inspired to start volunteering at Wheeler Mission. Other CFI 70 students planted trees to combat air pollution in urban areas, helped find homes for pets, and raised awareness about important topics such as food rescue, refugees, elderly care, and breast cancer. “It’s really moving to see kids realize they can make an impact, regardless of their age or what life has thrown their way,” Gillen said. “They’re not just saying our school mission, they’re living it.”

While Collier encourages all student families to participate in school activities, she knows they can’t all easily drop in to have a meal with their children, help a teacher, or simply get a look at where their child learns. Collier remembers being a single parent who worked two jobs while her son was young.

“Parental involvement means getting your child to school on time, seeing that the homework gets done, going through the Friday Folder,” she said. “Your first obligation as a parent is to your child and making sure they have a successful experience. That’s the biggest piece.”

One way Collier tries to meet the needs of all parents is a simple fix. She recently realized parental meetings were scheduled for 6:30 p.m., creating a 30-minute gap following afterschool care. Now, those parental meetings start at 6 p.m., and dinner is provided, making it easier for all families to take part.

Another hard focus: homework. “I tell my families what I tell my teachers: ‘less is more,’” Collier said, explaining that she prefers that students get most of their schoolwork done in the classroom, so family time can truly be family time. That’s not to say she doesn’t encourage regular reading at home. Collier tells heartbreaking stories of students of all cultures who face challenges at home due to poverty or other issues. But she smiles when she talks about how the CFI mission—“To develop a community of respectful, lifelong learners who use inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to be socially responsible contributors to a changing global society”—is being lived.

Collier offers these examples. A young man walked into school carrying a newspaper. “Ms. Collier! Ms. Collier!” he said, pointing out a tragedy played out on the front page. “What are we going to do about this?” After the 9/11 attacks, a kindergarten class created a kindness quilt, sewing messages of hope onto fabric blocks. They presented it to their nearby fire station firefighters.

“School shouldn’t be something that’s done to you,” Collier says. “It should invite your ideas, challenge your thoughts, and empower you to be the person you’re going to be in the world.”

Cheryl Reed is a freelance writer who lives in the Canterbury neighborhood

A version of this article appears in the August/September 2018 print edition of the magazine.