by Cheryl Reed
It has been years since the one-story, multicolor-brick building at the northeast corner of Kessler Boulevard and Keystone Avenue could be defined as a traditional neighborhood school. Since its 1953 dedication as Indianapolis Public School #59, a typical K–8 neighborhood elementary school, it has evolved to accommodate various grade-level groupings.
As local enrollments fell, for a while only middle school students trod its terrazzo-tile floors. For a short time the school had a kindergarten class too. Then, the building fell vacant for a couple of years. In 2008, it was reconfigured once again, this time as a magnet school renamed the Sidener Academy for High Ability Students. No longer drawing students only from the homes around it, the Midtown school attracts students from across—and beyond—Marion County.
“We have a disjointed community but a community nonetheless,” says Cathy Drummer, who has been the school principal’s administrative assistant for the past nine years. “We are a neighborhood school. It’s just that our neighborhood is huge.”
DIVERSE and CHALLENGING
Troy A. Nolan-Watkins has been the Sidener Academy principal since July 2016. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, he worked in retail at Glendale Mall and lived at 44th Street and College Avenue while teaching and pursuing his principal’s certification at Butler University. Part of his 33 years in education included years in Vermont. He and his husband returned to Indiana to give their four children a chance to spend quality time with their grandparents.
“I never left Glendale,” he jokes. “The school has changed over time and we now draw students here from all over, so we’re not a typical neighborhood school in that sense, but we’re a really tight-knit group despite that.”
Sidener Academy currently has 357 children in grades 2 through 8, with a capacity for 400. State law defines a “high ability student” as one who “(1) performs at, or shows the potential for performing at, an outstanding level of accomplishment in at least one domain when compared to other students of the same age, experience, or environment; and (2) is characterized by exceptional gifts, talents, motivation, or interests.” Indiana Department of Education statistics show that the student body is diverse:
- 48.5 percent of students identify as White
- 25.5 percent of students identify as Black
- 15.1 percent identify as Hispanic
- 1.4 percent of students identify as Asian
- 9.5 percent of students identify as multi-racial/other
- 44 percent of Sidener’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
But demographics don’t define the Sidener Redhawks. “Our kids self-identify as nerds,” Nolan-Ryan said. “It’s a good thing. They call themselves Side-nerds. They fit here.”
Karin Ogden’s son was coasting through the K–8 IPS school he had attended since kindergarten. “We learned that he had tested at high ability for some time, but we hadn’t been aware of it, and we weren’t satisfied that his school had a good strategy for challenging him,” Ogden said. “At Sidener, he had challenges everywhere—academically as well as socially—and it was wonderful. He’s a better kid because of his time there.” Her son is now thriving at Shortridge High School.
PREPARED FOR SUCCESS
It’s unsurprising that the school routinely tests at the state’s highest levels and is currently the only IPS school to earn the 4-Star School distinction. What might be surprising is that hitting those marks or having 100 percent of his students pass the ISTEP isn’t what keeps Nolan-Watkins up at night.
“My goals are to help each student learn more than a year’s growth each year and to prepare them to succeed in whatever high school they want to attend,” he said. “We’re not immune to discipline or any other struggle every other school faces. Their high academic abilities set our kids apart, but they have the same kind of baggage and issues that any other child has, and we work hard to address those as well.”
Some Sidener students have very actively involved parents who shuttle them from as far away as the south side and Noblesville. Other kids rely on bus service to reach school, and some have little support at home. Whatever the need, the Sidener community stands ready to make sure all students succeed.
If the school fails a student who struggles to participate, it fails everybody, Nolan-Watkins said. “Our teachers and our parents respond with what some might think is uncommon generosity, but I’ve come to learn isn’t uncommon at all,” he continued. “We truly have a community that responds to our needs, whether it’s providing food for families to cover school breaks or other individual needs that arise.”
Local businesses are also great partners, he said. The Lowe’s home improvement store adjacent to the school is a particularly helpful neighbor, offering supplies and help with projects, and the school relies on the Glendale branch of the Indianapolis Public Library for many of its content needs. DeveloperTown, a Midtown software design and development firm, offers coding lessons to interested students. A recent partnership with Junior Achievement and DEFENDERS, a home security provider, provided Sidener scholars with hands-on experiences about market-based economics.
Many of the school’s graduates from the days when it was known as IPS #59 and they were the Warriors still live in the area and are glad to see it being used. Some even fondly recall days of slipping through a hole in the fence to spend time at the Orange Julius store at the former Glendale Mall when they should have been in class. “Now our kids scheme about going over to Target,” Nolan-Watkins noted.
Sidener’s adult visitors quickly hearken back to their own school years. The smell of lunch wafts through the corridors that bear posters encouraging students to aim high, stay away from drugs and guns, and win at various sports and academic competitions. At student request, there are karate, chess, yoga, robotics, and LEGO® clubs. Orchestra students warm up with an out-of-tune Mary Had a Little Lamb that grates on the ears, causing Cathy Drummer to wince from her front office desk. “That’s the experienced orchestra,” she remarks. “They’re doing that on purpose.”
Sure enough, the sound moves into a more sophisticated and melodic music. Students drift in and out of the office. A parent comes in, confessing it was he, not his son, who lost the permission form for a field trip. Drummer takes it in stride as if she’s seen and heard it all. And maybe she has. “It can be hard to have parents actively involved when they live clear across town or outside the city, but we have a real sense of community,” she said.
A PLACE OF INCLUSION
The school is named for community leader Merle Sidener, a Crawfordsville native who graduated from Shortridge High School and Butler University in the late 19th century. An advertising mogul, he began his career in journalism and worked hard to maintain truth in advertising standards. He was also a civic leader, active in education, business, religion, and health-focused organizations.
Nolan-Watkins has more in common than just Butler history with Sidener. The men share a philosophy. On Nolan-Watkins’ desk are two apples that sit on a slab of stone taken from a lake house he owned before being becoming a parent. One apple is crystal, a gift from his Vermont colleagues. The other is red, a gift from a longtime friend, and bears the inscription “Draw the Circle Bigger.”
“My philosophy has always been to draw the circle bigger,” Nolan-Watkins said, reiterating his hope that Sidener’s reputation grows beyond one focused only on its students’ intellect. “We’re not a place of exclusion,” he said. “If we’re drawing the circle bigger, we’re doing our job.”
Cheryl Reed is a freelance writer and public relations professional who lives in Canterbury.