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Innovation in Indianapolis with Aleesia Johnson

ERS's Indianapolis Public Schools work highlighted by the district's innovation officer

Read this blog as originally posted, on the Thriving Schools website.

Aleesia Johnson is the Innovation Officer for Indianapolis Public Schools where she manages the selection, authorization, evaluation, and accountability of the district’s current and prospective innovation schools. Previously, Aleesia served as a School Leader at KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory and a Director of District Strategy and Program at Teach for America – Indianapolis. Aleesia also spent six years teaching middle school science, social studies, and ELA. She completed her Teach for America corps experience in Paterson, New Jersey. Aleesia is originally from Evansville, IN.


Thriving Schools: What excites you the most about making innovation happen in Indianapolis?

Aleesia: Let me start by saying that sometimes it’s hard for me not to be in the classroom. I miss the joy you get from being in those unscripted moments at school. I do miss that terribly and some days I need to just go and sit in a classroom and feel that joy! But I’m really motivated in my current role to make those joyful moments happen more frequently through the creation of really great schools. And I get to do that with my city and community. So that’s what really excites me now!

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Photo Credit: The 74 Million

Thriving Schools: Why are words like “innovation” or “change” met with so much resistance in education?

Aleesia: I don’t think we have resistance to innovation so much as we have a jadedness because of all of the “silver bullet” type solutions that have been offered up in the past. The longer you’re in this field, you realize there’s nothing new under the sun – we simply see a lot of old ideas repackaged in new ways. And people feel weary of all this when we don’t get the adequate time to see if something works. For example, we go from Basal textbooks, to reading/writing workshops, to balanced literacy, and so on. We have to accept there just isn’t “a thing,” and that there’s lots of different ways to approach our kids’ needs.

Thriving Schools: In order to make innovation happen, how do we need to change our allocation of resources?

Aleesia: In Indiana (although many states have the same problem), I think there are mechanisms we need to change to ensure that funding happens equitably (rather than equally). For example, IPS has a large proportion of low-income students in our state, and yet we’ve seen our funding cut over the last 5 years due to property tax laws and a few other things going on. The other piece I’d mention is it’s really important to give our principles more control over the dollars that are being used in their buildings to impact student outcomes.


In 2014, Indiana legislators approved a law that enabled school districts across the state to create Innovation Network Schools. These schools operate with the authority to make decisions about all aspects of their school – both academic and operational – and are held accountable by the school district for agreed upon student outcomes. In Indianapolis Public Schools, there are four pathways a school may take to become an innovation school – 1) launch as a new innovation school, 2) launch as an innovation charter school, 3) restart an existing chronically underperforming school as an innovation school, or 4) convert an existing school to an innovation school.

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Thriving Schools: Being the 1st school district in the nation to implement an innovation district, what have you learned about gaining the support of stakeholders?

Aleesia: We have a strong, visionary, and relatively aligned school board. We have a superintendent who is well-regarded across multiple stakeholder groups – state lawmakers, local legislators, and community leaders – and has been really intentional about building those relationships. We also have the support of The Mind Trust, which is an education non-profit here in Indiana which has been excellent to work with. Dr. Ferebee, our superintendent, also has a close collaboration with the mayor’s office in Indianapolis because the mayor is the one who authorizes charter schools (it’s actually not the district). So it’s pretty powerful when you have the superintendent of the largest district in the state, partnered with the mayor’s office, advocating for legislation at the state-level for the creation of our innovation network.

Thriving Schools: What was the impetus for forming these intentionally strong relationships?

Aleesia: It was really a response to what we had seen happen in a number of other states. We had seen states go in, take over multiple schools in a district, and leave them without a relationship with that local district. So what our innovation network says is, even if a school is partnered with an outside organization, both it and the district are incentivized to have a strong relationship because the performance of the innovation schools counts in the overall performance of the district. And unfortunately, in a lot of state takeover situations, that relationship no longer exists.

Thriving Schools: Do you have a sense for how this legislation is being enacted elsewhere in Indiana?

Aleesia: Right now, we’re the only district in the state that is actually exercising the innovation network legislation that was passed!

Thriving Schools: It sounds like IPS has an excellent level of collaboration?

Aleesia: Absolutely! And keep in mind, Dr. Ferebee did not come from a charter background; he came from a traditional district setting. But what he brought into his position was an openness for what’s possible and a focus on high-quality schools, period! And the mechanism by which they come into existence and are governed is much less important than delivering on our promise to deliver an excellent education to our kids. This is important because so much of the education debate that goes on in our state and nationally revolves around “are you a traditional public or are you ‘other’?” But what we can say in our innovation network is we’re both!

Thriving Schools: What does IPS do to ensure that its innovation schools are living up to their promise?

Aleesia: First, we maintain strong relationships with our innovation schools. We know all the school leaders, we do regular visits, and we require monthly reports from them. They all know me, and I know all of them. By law, they are required to report to our school board twice a year, which by the way, is something that our traditional public schools don’t have to do. And we ask questions about discipline data, achievement rates, what assessment data is saying right now, etc. So again, the level of transparency and conversation that we’re having within the innovation network is higher than in our traditional schools. And of course, all of the documents are posted publicly on our website and can be reviewed by anyone in the community.

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Thriving Schools: Can you tell us about your “autonomy cohort” and how leadership training looks for leaders of innovation schools?

Aleesia: Our autonomy cohort came out of our desire to expand school-level decision-making to all of the schools in our district. So we’d argue it’s great to give principals more control over the dollars they have and the flexibility to make decisions that influence their buildings. But if you don’t provide the training and development for these leaders to actually use this new power, then we’ll probably get what we’ve always gotten. Autonomy, in and of itself, does not mean outcomes are going to improve.

Thriving Schools: What does this training look like?

Aleesia: We partnered with Education Resource Strategies, an excellent non-profit in Boston, because they’ve done a lot of work with other districts on this around the country. And they take our enrolled school leaders through a several-month long program where they examine school data, identify gaps and priorities, and then provide different strategies for addressing each of the issues. For example, depending on need, some schools might prioritize strategies for adult learning needs, time management, professional development, etc. From there, they discuss how they can align their dollars and increased decision-making responsibilities to address those priorities. They’ll also set metrics for how they’ll determine success and make it a part of their school’s planning process.

Stay tuned! We’re going to have Aleesia back for a Round 2 where we discuss specific schools in the IPS Innovation Network and the novel projects they’re pursuing!

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