The Washington Post Sunday
What the new chancellor will bring to D.C.
After 11 years of centralization, Lewis D. Ferebee, the choice of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to be the next D.C. schools chancellor (subject to confirmation by the D.C. Council), will bring a fresh perspective to D.C. Public Schools. As superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, his signature strategy was empowering principals and teachers.
Tall and bespectacled, Ferebee is an affable, soft-spoken leader with an easy smile and a low-key manner. A former public school teacher and assistant principal in his native North Carolina, he says his leadership journey began when, at 25, a superintendent asked him to become principal of his worst elementary school. “He gave me the keys and said, ‘Lewis, you have carte blanche authority. If anybody comes to you about a decision you made, have them come to me.’ ”
That autonomy was the key to his success, Ferebee says. “At the end of the day, if principals feel handcuffed, if teachers feel handcuffed, you’re stifling their creativity. Your best teachers are your most innovative and creative teachers, and they know their learners. So when you don’t give them the full opportunity to make informed decisions about what they know, you’re limiting the opportunity for them to be successful.”
Ferebee also discovered that empowering teachers was his best recruitment tool. His teachers recruited others into the building because they were excited.
Watching his students move on to a failing middle school, he asked his superintendent if he could run that school. When he turned it around, too, the superintendent invited him to oversee all district middle schools. Then a new superintendent came in and made him regional superintendent of a feeder pattern of elementary, middle and high schools that were struggling. Under Ferebee’s leadership, they outperformed the district in academic growth.
When Durham, N.C., hired the district’s chief of staff to be its superintendent, he brought Ferebee along and asked him to turn around all the district’s low-performing schools. Again, Ferebee empowered his principals and teachers. He was telling their story at a national conference when several school board members from Indianapolis, who were looking for a new superintendent, heard him. The next thing he knew, they were inviting him to Indianapolis for an interview.
One thing he discovered in Indianapolis will sound familiar to educators in the District: a “real thick dividing line between traditional public schools and charters.” There was “a lot of finger pointing” and “no collaboration,” he says. The district was “struggling with underutilized facilities, and charter schools were being incubated in old grocery stores and old factories. The whole financial model of that division didn’t make sense to me. We’re still talking about public schools.”
Ferebee also found an unusual degree of centralization within the Indianapolis Public Schools: Principals didn’t even select their assistant principals and teachers. Principals told him their schools weren’t as strong as they could be because they didn’t have enough autonomy, so he empowered them, eventually giving them far more control over their budgets and hiring than traditional public school principals usually enjoy.
He also helped pass state legislation that gave the district authority to create “innovation network schools,” which have the same autonomies charters enjoy and operate outside the district’s union contracts. Most have five-year performance contracts with the district and use district buildings. If a school doesn’t fulfill its contract terms, the district can terminate it or refuse to renew it, but otherwise it cannot interfere with the school’s autonomy.
Some innovation schools are startups, some replace failing district schools, some are charters that wanted district buildings and funding and some were existing schools whose principals and teachers chose to convert.
They are nonprofit organizations with their own boards, which hire and fire the principals, set the budgets and pay scales, and choose the school designs. The district has 20 innovation schools (of about 70 district schools), a number expected to grow. After three years of state tests, they are the fastest-improving group of schools in the district.
Though Ferebee turned all district-operated high schools into choice schools, with specialized learning models, most innovation schools are neighborhood schools. Ferebee believes in public school choice, but he also wanted to give access to quality schools to those whose parents don’t choose. In addition, he believes “there is a symbiotic relationship between a neighborhood and a school.” When a school is abandoned, the neighborhood tends to go downhill. He wanted innovation schools to revive neighborhoods.
Teachers and principals in D.C. should welcome Ferebee’s enthusiasm for empowering educators, and parents should welcome his willingness to create new models — even partnerships with charters — if that’s what it takes to produce quality schools for their children.
“My philosophy is this,” he says. “You can have a bad year, but we know those schools, and they exist all across the nation, where every year is a bad year. The outcomes and challenges of those situations are very steep to overcome for the students and their families. It’s typically the neighborhood schools, where students are required to attend. That’s a social justice issue, an equity issue. I am of the belief that we get students out of those situations by any means necessary.” David Osborne, author of “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” directs the education team at the Progressive Policy Institute. Emily Langhorne is associate director of the project.