New IPS superintendent listening, learning in schools

Dr. Lewis Ferebee greets students at IPS School #27.

Leading one of the state's largest school districts is already a challenge.  But when that district is dealing with a $30 million deficit, more than half of the district's schools are failing and student enrollment is declining, the obstacles can seem overwhelming. 

The new superintendent for Indianapolis Public Schools, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, takes it all in stride.

Dr. Ferebee has been on the job as IPS superintendent for almost 30 days. Even if you don't have a child in IPS, the decisions he makes can impact you, your taxes, and even your home's value.

First and foremost, Dr. Ferebee is a man inspired by children.  From his time in college doing volunteer work with schoolchildren to his years as an educator, he'll be the first to tell you that it always has and always will be about the students.

That's why he's happiest spending time in the school buildings of Indianapolis Public Schools interacting with students. 

Walking through the halls of the Center for Inquiry, IPS School #27, Ferebee remembers his own elementary years with great fondness.

"It was fun. I remember coming to school and enjoying time with my friends," Ferebee said.

But he remembers a time when he struggled in the classroom with his reading until his third grade teacher introduced him to more non-fiction.

"She gave me an opportunity to enjoy a love for reading through informational texts and not so much as other students would focus on fiction," said Dr. Ferebee.

Still, Dr. Ferebee initially wanted nothing to do with a career in education.  Both of his parents were long-time educators and he saw how much time they poured into their work.  An unexpected college experience changed all that.

"I had to volunteer at a local elementary school at an after-school program and got hooked.  I remember sharing with my parents, I know why you got involved in this work and how rewarding it is," said Dr. Ferebee.

He remembers the day he got the call telling him he got the job.

"I was actually sitting with my son and we were having our regular Saturday morning time and I said, 'I got the job'," Ferebee recalled. "And he said, 'Dad, you got the job? You're going to be the superintendent?' And we just started talking about what life was going to be like for me and for him and the family."

Now, after sixteen years in education as a teacher, principal, district administrator and now superintendent, Dr. Ferebee couldn't imagine being anywhere else.  While he knows IPS has its challenges with failing schools and a budget deficit, he's confident he can turn things around.

"I think once we hear what's of interest.  We have to look at our current programming and what we're doing right now.  So, we might have to repurpose some of our dollars that have been earmarked for other items and re-purpose them for new initiatives, new programs.  I think we can live within our means and also be very innovative and creative at the same time," said Dr. Ferebee.

When Dr. Ferebee does get to talk with students he's surprised by some of the questions, including those from students at low-performing schools wanting to know what they can do to help improve them.  His answer is a simple one.

"There's power in literacy and if you can read, you can achieve in almost any area.  That's the best thing they can do to help themselves and help their schools improve.  I know that from experience," he said.

Dr. Ferebee also talked about teacher evaluations, saying he thinks this is a perfect time to look at how we compensate and evaluate our teachers thinking about rewards, incentives, recruitment and retention.

Ferebee's nine-year-old son is a student at an IPS elementary school - a big incentive for him to get it right.

The rest of the district's 30,000 students is the other incentive. Ferebee thrives on spending time in the schools, talking with the children.

"What about (Center for Inquiry) was good to you?" Ferebee asked a student.

"You get more help from all of the wonderful teachers," the student replied.

As part of his 100-day entry plan, Ferebee has spent a lot of time around the district listening and learning what people want for their school district.

"I also think parents are very interested in having options across the district. I think there's also an interest in looking at how we can extend our school days or extend our school years for those students that may need additional learning time," he said.

He also addressed declining enrollment.

"We have to be more efficient. We're a school district that we've seen a steady decline in our enrollment over the years and, in many ways, we continue to operate as if we have 100,000, 80,000 or 50,000 students and we don't anymore. We have 30,000 students," Ferebee said.

With 90 percent of the district's budget going to personnel, Ferebee says a reduction in the workforce, utilizing employees in a different way or figuring out how to generate more revenue are key. One area of opportunity he's looking at is transportation.

"We transport almost 90 percent of our students - 26,000 students daily. I believe there's some opportunities to be more efficient there with transportation, which will generate some cost savings," Ferebee said.

Ferebee experienced the district's transportation on the first day of school, riding a school bus and answering a lot of questions from students.

"Shoe size, why I wanted to do the job, how tall I was," he said, recalling some of the questions.

He's a towering 6'5", in case you're wondering. Once the students got over his giant status, they also asked some very serious questions.

"It's unfortunate. Students know when there's information being put out there that they're going to a 'D' or 'F' school, so a lot of the students wanted to know what they could do to make their schools better," Ferebee said.

He says one of the things he has been working on is enhancing the relationships between himself and school board members.