Sidener Academy finding ISTEP success


With communities across Indiana looking for ways to improve schools, we went looking for what's already working. Our search took us to a school where nearly every child is passing the state ISTEP exams in a place you might not expect.

Students carry armloads of books through the hallways. Class changes are orderly and uneventful. In class, they are confronted with a demanding curriculum and challenging teachers.

Every year more than 99 percent of these IPS students pass their ISTEP examinations.

"They can do just as well as any other student in the state, or any other student in the nation," teacher Julie Opal said with a mix of confidence and pride.

Indianapolis Public Schools opened the Merle Sidener Academy five years ago. The elementary school is located next to the Glendale shopping area.

Sitting in these desks is not a right. It is a privilege. To get here, students have to score 90 percent or better on standardized tests. Once here, they have to meet demanding expectations. Working a grade level ahead is the norm. Teachers emphasize reasoning and critical thinking skills over memorization.

Although Sidener has the advantage of hand-picking its students, classes are about as diverse as other inner city schools. More than half are minority children. More than 60 percent receive free or reduced lunches.

Students here must over come the same behavioral, emotional, economic and social problems as other inner city students, says Principal Tennille Wallace. "Just because kids are gifted, doesn't mean they come with the natural ability to succeed," she said.

Teachers credit the school's unique curriculum that they claim students actually enjoy.

"That way we can dive deeper into the material, rather than skimming over the surface," Opal said.

Teachers also see the power of bringing each lesson to the level of each individual student. Like other teachers, Mary Keefe seldom stands in front of the class. She moves from desk to desk, student to student.

"Whether they are up here or down there, in the middle or confused about that, if you can focus on the individual kid, meet them where they are, you can take that to any school or any district," she said.

Other schools are looking are for what they can learn and use from Merle Sidener's success. Teachers here are looking for new ways to challenge students who are already exceeding expectations.