Innovative Schools in Indy with Aleesia Johnson

Aleesia Johnson is the Deputy Superintendent for Academics for Indianapolis Public 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.

You can read the first part of our interview with Aleesia, on the mechanics of the Innovation Network in Indianapolis, by clicking here!


Thriving Schools: How many schools are in the innovation network and what kind of results are you seeing from these schools?

Aleesia: We have 16 schools currently in our innovation network. Last year, we had 8 schools, and 7 out of the 8 showed positive overall proficiency gains on our I-STEP tests (Indiana’s statewide testing program). Let me also make clear that some of the schools in the network came into it already performing at a high level. But again, what’s really cool is that we have all kinds of schools in our network – neighborhood schools, district-choice programs, charters, etc.

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Thriving Schools: Let’s hear about some of the innovative schools! Where shall we start?

Aleesia: Let me tell you about Purdue Polytechnic, a high school that’s reimagining the high school experience. They don’t have a set schedule – they have students set their own schedules week by week depending on student needs and where they’re at in a design project cycle. So if you were to jump in and visit, no one week will look the same as the last! Students are really being empowered with choice and voice!

We did a 2-piece interview with Andrew Goodin, a Personal Learning Coach on the Design Thinking Team at Purdue Polytechnic, earlier this year. You can read Part 1, about the Future of School, and Part 2, a Guide to Design Thinking Resources, by clicking on the links here!

Thriving Schools: Next?

Aleesia: We have another one, Global Prep Academy, which was previously a low-performing neighborhood district school that has transformed itself into a K-6, elementary dual-language immersion school. Students there take half their day in English and half their day in Spanish. And this is also an example of school that demonstrated really strong results after their first year of operation. I think Mariama Carson and her team have done an excellent job!

Thriving Schools: Let’s keep going! Can you tell us about another?

Aleesia: We have another school, Ignite Achievement Academy, which was also previously a low-performing neighborhood elementary school. It’s in its first year and so we don’t have hard data yet, but the school was restarted with a partner. Their focus is on brain-based learning. For example, they build in brain breaks throughout the day that includes programming to help kids understand how their brains work and appreciate what that means for their learning. They’ve also incorporated martial arts and all the students take it several times a week. And by the time they’re ready for middle school, most of their students will be close to earning their black-belts! Of course, they use the martial arts to teach self-discipline, respect for others, and build strong social-emotional skills in their students.

Thriving Schools: Let’s maybe get 1 more?

Aleesia: Thomas Gregg is another elementary school which was a traditional district school and entered the innovation network as a conversion school (which means they applied to become a part of the innovation network), and they did an excellent job of leveraging the community around them to make this transition. There’s a really great partnership going on in that community! They’ve moved to a personalized learning model with lots of family-centered resources that are available through community organizations right down the street (from the school)! And they’re able to be a lot more strategic with these community partnerships because they now control the financial resources coming into the school. So again, it’s been really inspiring to watch this community and school come together to create a positive vision for what they want for their children.


Thriving Schools: That really makes it clear how important financial autonomy is for these schools! Have you seen any other examples of innovation on the budgeting or resource allocation front?

Aleesia: Our principles are saying they now have the power to pay their top-performing teachers in a way that shows they’re valued and what they bring to the school (and in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do under the district’s collective bargaining agreement).

Thriving Schools: Shifting gears, what sort of innovations are you seeing on the coaching or teacher development front from your schools?

Aleesia: I would say most of our schools have a weekly coaching and observation cycle. We have a couple of school leaders that went through Relay’s Graduate School of Education, and they said the training they’ve been receiving there has been really helpful in facilitating the real-time coaching they want to do. Mariama Carson at Global Prep, who I mentioned earlier, is just one school leader who has expanded the time she spends on teacher development. We have another school that participates in TAP, the Teacher Advancement Program, which involves a pretty structured protocol for embedded professional development and coaching conversations. But again, it’s an example of a framework that gives you a common language to talk about excellent instructional practices, classroom culture, and planning and assessment. Many of your readers will be familiar with this system.

Thriving Schools: Let’s push this even deeper! Are there any bold or new initiatives that your schools are taking that, even though we might not have the data on it yet, that you’re really excited to keep your eyes on?

Aleesia: The most innovative thing we’re trying this year is a partnership with Thrival Academy (which will be an innovation school for the next school year), where 20 of our high school juniors recently landed in Thailand. This academy is housed in one of our schools and provides a culturally-immersive, experiential curriculum that involves studying abroad for 3 months in Thailand. Our goal is for this type of program to expand into an innovation school next year in the district. So yes – this is super awesome, interesting, and exciting!


Thriving Schools: What books, websites, or other resources do you like to recommend to other educators interested in increasing the level of innovation in their cities and schools?

Aleesia: A book that discusses change management and has been really help to me is Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. And again, with the substantial levels of change that we’re implementing across our district, it’s been hugely helpful to me! So that would be the book I’d recommend to your audience!

Thriving Schools: And any final message that you’d like to leave Thriving Schools with?

Aleesia: I guess I’d just like everyone to know how hard and challenging it is to execute on the innovative things we’re trying at the district and school level here. I think it’s the right thing, obviously, that’s why I’m doing it! But it’s a long-game effort, and I want to make sure people understand that! We’re in it for the long-haul!