The largest school district in Indiana, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) recently announced priorities that lay the foundation for a long-term strategic plan. And this past July, Aleesia Johnson was officially named superintendent of the district after serving as interim superintendent for several months. On the heels of Aleesia’s appointment and the strategic plan announcement, CORE sat down with Aleesia along with Scott Martin, chief operations officer at IPS, to learn more about the district’s areas of focus, lessons learned, and a few fun facts, too.
IPS recently held several public meetings on its strategic plan. Tell us a bit about what the district is focusing on through the plan.
AJ: We have six priorities for this year that we’ll then build into our five-year strategic plan. Those six priorities are:
- Student-Centered Teaching & Learning
- High-Performing Team
- Racial Equity Mindset
- School-Centered Central Services
- Engaged Families, Team & Partners
- Sustainable Finances and Operations
We’re focused on building our work around those areas, so our students are college-ready, career-ready, and life-ready.
Speaking of being life-ready, this past school year, IPS transitioned four high schools to college and career academies—something that CORE helped the district implement. Share a bit about what that means for students.
AJ: Two years ago, we went through a “Reinventing IPS High School” process, which launched our college and career academies and took the schools we directly manage from seven to four. We equip students to have choices, so they attend a high school-based on what they are interested in, versus where they live. We have a number of categories we’ve launched under the advisement of employers and our school team so kids can choose their pathways. This sets them up for success because they’ve spent four years invested in what they’re most interested in.
What are you most excited about in your role as superintendent?
AJ: I’m really excited about our continued work around employee compensation. We believe that if we give decision making authority and flexibility to our leaders, they’ll make decisions that best serve the needs of their teachers, their students, and their students’ families. Our compensation strategy wasn’t matching that approach, so we have been able to do rightsizing for our principals. In addition, with our teachers union partnership, we’ve made positive movement on teacher compensation. By investing in our team, we can recruit and retain great people.
I’m also excited about the work of our family and community engagement team. Our schools are part of a larger ecosystem, so it’s important for us to plug in to the community. We have a structure that supports us in doing that more intentionally than before.
CORE Planning Strategies has worked as an owner’s rep for IPS for several years. From your perspective, how does this partnership benefit the school district?
SM: I’ve worked with Deb Kunce since I started at IPS 5½ years ago. CORE brings longstanding knowledge and history with our schools, our staff, and our buildings as well as an overall understanding of the district. I came in with a new staff, and neither myself nor Paul Riley, director of facilities, had that knowledge, so it has been really valuable for us. We’ve been able to determine what is the most critical in a shorter amount of time.
In addition, Deb’s an architect by trade and her experience in educational planning helped us develop what our schools could look like in the next iteration of the high school reinvention. Deb and Jason, in particular, were critical in interfacing with the principals and staff to develop the plan and work with our other architects. It helped us tremendously to have CORE on the ground with us making sure it happened in our short timeframe. Ten million dollars’ worth of work was built in a couple of months and it took a lot of coordination to make that happen. We came in under budget and on time and the school opened with everything ready for the students. That was probably one of the biggest wins I’ve had working in the district.
What kind of advice would you give architecture, engineering and construction firms when it comes to working in the educational environment?
AJ: Our core business is teaching and learning, and everything has to be viewed through the lens of what will create the best teaching and learning environment. I appreciate Scott and his team for being focused on how that impacts students and their learning experience. That has to be the primary consideration.
SM: We need partners who understand how the work occurs with students in the building. Our window is short to do meaningful work; a six-week summer isn’t what it used to be when you had three months off. Everything has to be coordinated really well to pull that off. One thing CORE understands, and in turn all the vendors that work through us understand, is that students and staff come first—their safety and ability to learn without interruption. Some companies don’t understand why they can’t do tuckpointing during the day with a hammer drill thumping outside of the building while students on the inside are trying to learn. So we look for contractors and partners that will do work outside of typical hours, do it timely, and respect the needs of the teaching and learning going on.
What’s a fun fact that most people don’t know about you?
AJ: I love Beyoncé—she’s my favorite. I have a “Work hard and Beyoncé” sign in my office.
SJ: I’ve spent 20 years in educational operations; before that I was in food and beverage manufacturing and spent 12 years with the Quaker Oats Company. The first facility I managed was the world’s largest cereal mill, at 3.5 million square feet. I had a lot to learn to make sure that whatever work we did inside the facility didn’t compromise public safety with the food we were putting out… it’s interesting how that all ties back to what I do today, helping protect the safety and wellbeing of the students and teachers.