I love Dr. White

Dateline: Fri 25 Aug 2006

When Shirl Gilbert was the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools in the 1990s, he made a point of saying that the district's mission was first to serve black children and black families.

One result of that approach was to drive some whites away; I knew people who chose to pay tuition to Washington Township schools and commute there, rather than stay in IPS where they felt unwanted.

No doubt Gilbert wanted what was best for black children, but playing the race card certainly did not eliminate the inherent IPS baggage --- poverty and all its components. As IPS spokeswoman Kim Hooper said Friday, "We do have some challenges. A lot are the result of the socio-economic status of our families. And if you don't understand what it is to be poor, it is hard to relate."

Hooper pointed out that when the Star ran mug shots of suspects in recent murders, "They had two things in common. They had all been in the criminal justice system, and they were all high school dropouts." Presumably, poverty also was a common denominator.

I asked Hooper if Eugene White, the new superintendent of IPS, saw color in his role as head of the state's largest school district.

"No," she said. "He has said many times, 'We have got to stop making excuses.'"

Dr. White, she added, has frequently addressed the idea -- a criticism voiced by some in the black community -- that more black teachers would help IPS. After all, IPS has a majority black student population. "It is not a matter of black and white to Dr. White. It is a matter of good-quality teachers," said Hooper.

His definition of a good-quality teacher is measured by that person's enthusiasm and compassion for children. Yes, it's that simple.

"He is fond of saying, 'Children don't care what you know until they know that you care,' Hooper quoted White.

"People like to think the opposite of love is hate but it is indifference," she added. "We have too many indifferent people working with our young people."

Always a no-nonsense, no-excuses educator, White has created a buzz all over Indy with some of his reforms: the elimination of 6th grade in middle schools, more designated magnet programs, the introduction of the International Baccalaureate program at the elementary level, same-sex schools and an insistence on academic excellence across the board (from principals to teachers to students).

I picked up on some of the excitement during my three days in Indy this past week. IPS has opened its second Center for Inquiry School, expanding that program to include both its original Downtown location as well as the former School 84 on the Northside as well. Principal Christine Collier, another veteran educator with a proven track record, is overseeing both facilities.

IPS listened to neighborhood residents regarding the new school and its location, said Hooper. Parents said they wanted a Kindergarten-thru-8th grade school, not a K-5th grade. They also wanted the original school to remain, not to be torn down and rebuilt -- a controversial move that would have taken out several homes in the Meridian-Kessler area.

IPS also listened to parental requests for an expanded Center for Inquiry curriculum. The Downtown school always has a waiting list.

The result has been to draw residents of the Meridian-Kessler and nearby Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods back to IPS. Some have left nearby Catholic and private schools in order to be part of the new IPS school.

These may seem like small changes, but an overall attitude of accountability and creativity, a board that works together and with Dr. White and an inherently good product -- children -- should produce wonderful results.

I say give IPS an "A" for its first week.

Contract me: ruth@ruthholladay.com

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