by Cheryl Reed
In some ways, the evolution of IPS Eliza A. Blaker School 55—from its start 60 years ago as a traditional elementary school to one of the district’s most sought-after magnet schools this fall—seems like the natural order of things.
Named for the innovative educator who was the first superintendent of the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten, Eliza Blaker School 55 has consistently served students at 1349 E. 54th St. since 1958. The technology has changed, but the style of teaching, the layout of the classrooms, and the look of the place hasn’t changed much—just as traditional education hasn’t changed much.
When it reopens its doors Aug. 6 as the second location of the highly acclaimed and innovative Butler Lab School, returning School 55 students and staff may not recognize the place. And when classes get under way, they certainly won’t.
But from her bronze spot on the front wall, Eliza Blaker will likely be smiling.
Blaker earned her namesake position with her own educational innovations. In addition to fighting for free kindergarten in Indianapolis, she established a teaching school in her home that became the Teachers College of Indianapolis and was later made part of Butler University’s education department.
A BUTLER LAB SCHOOL
Trisha Brand, mother of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old in the nearby Canterbury neighborhood, wanted to send her children to School 55 because it’s within walking distance of her home. The proximity wasn’t enough to overcome her concerns about its recent underperformance, though.
She had been preparing to gather like-minded area parents to approach the school for ideas about how they could help it improve. When she learned the school would become a Butler Lab school, she was intrigued and toured the original location, William Bell School 60, to see what it was all about.
“I don’t yet know how my kids will respond to the Reggio–inspired style of teaching,” Brand said. “But I’m excited for the opportunity and what it means for our neighborhood. I think a lot of parents around here will be thrilled to support it if it’s all it seems to be.”
Christie Hurst, whose three children ages 9, 7, and 5 attend School 60, predicts Brand will be as happy as she is. “At this age, we just really want our kids to develop a love for learning and to practice being thoughtful members of their community. We see that daily at the Lab School,” Hurst said. “They love to go to school. They skip through the front doors in the morning. I think that’s a testament to a curriculum that starts with the kids’ own ideas and interests, and to the incredible educators, like Mrs. Kent, who are attracted to this teaching philosophy.”
School 55 will be the first principal post for Nicole Kent, who spent six years at the original Butler Lab School, first as a teacher and then as assistant principal. Like School 60, the new School 55 will follow the Reggio Emilio–inspired philosophy of instruction.
Does Kent feel pressure to perform? “Every principal feels pressure to increase performance,” she said. “But I really believe in our program and I’m confident it will support growth.”
Ron Smith, principal at IPS’s first Butler Lab School and Kent’s mentor, echoed that prediction but said academic transformation won’t be as quick as the interior makeover. “This program is built for the long game,” he said. “We think that’s best for the kids. I do expect to see some improvement quickly, and more over time.”
A BRAND-NEW CONCEPT
The Reggio–inspired philosophy is one that considers the environment to be as much a teacher as the human educator in the room. While the program is highly structured, students aren’t expected to sit quietly at their desks and learn from a lecturing teacher.
Classrooms will be the standard 30-by-30-foot squares but will have tables scattered about, maybe a couch or large pillows here and there. There likely won’t be as many chairs as students and at any given time of the day, some children may be reading with a teacher while others lie on the floor doing other work or play in a corner. There will be walking tours of the neighborhood, using the Monon Trail or local parks for nature hikes and possibly visits to local businesses to learn about what goes on inside their walls.
“A large part of the Reggio–inspired philosophy is the context of the environment, and we have a brand-new context here at 55, and there’s so much here to explore,” Kent says. “We’ll extend our classrooms well beyond the building.”
At the end of the 2017–18 school year, the school had 180 students in grades preK through 6. Kent expects to grow that population to 275 next year. Within two years, they hope to expand to offer 7th and 8th grades, with two classrooms for every grade level but preK. They’ll use six portable classrooms, which are slightly larger than the existing classrooms, to accommodate growth.
All of the students enrolled who didn’t age out prior to the switch to the Lab School format were invited to return. Staff who wanted to return to the new format were invited to apply. Eight staff, a mix of teachers and support staff, made the transition. Some teachers from School 60 will be working at School 55 in the fall, and some School 60 students will also transfer in to the new location.
A NEIGHBORHOOD FEELING
School 60’s Smith said he was pleased the opening of School 55 came after changes to IPS’s enrollment process, which included preferences for geographical proximity and additional enrollment dates. Multiple opportunities were offered to the School 55 students and families to get to know Kent and the Reggio–inspired style prior to the end of the last school year. “We asked them all to remain with us and nearly all of them did,” Kent said. “We’re very excited about that.”
Smith said he expects School 55 to have the same “through-the-roof” parental involvement that School 60 enjoys. Indications are good that he’s right. Parents and staff worked together on a recent Saturday for a “Moving Day” that included transporting fixtures and furniture from School 60 to School 55. Currently stored in the gym, the collection will eventually be moved into classrooms designed to be more like home than traditional rows of desks and chairs.
The most common question raised by parents so far is, “‘How can I help?’” Kent said. “They’ve offered to pull weeds, to clean, to do whatever they can. There’s a real feeling of neighborhood here and we love that. The response has been really amazing.”
Asked what success will look like in a year, Kent reflected on her time at School 60. “I’m so honored to be here. I wasn’t looking to leave School 60. I would have stayed there for a very long time,” she said. “But one of the things we did there was take a lot of pictures and look back on our beginning. We’ll do that here, and I’m excited for the story we’re going to have to tell.”
Most of the differences to come aren’t readily apparent. Kent has repainted the blue and yellow walls to a neutral cream and gray, so the children’s art projects will “pop” on the walls. The portable classrooms have yet to be installed and the existing rooms are in the process of being emptied and cleaned. The small garden may be expanded because “kids love to get dirty.” But Kent hesitates to say what exactly is next to come for School 55, other than the homier classrooms, because “it could be anything. We really need the kids here to start guiding us.”
Cheryl Reed is a freelance writer who lives in the Canterbury neighborhood.