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Eugene G. White is a superintendent of firsts. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school in his segregated town of Phenix City in southeast Alabama. Both academically and athletically inclined, White scored high enough grades—and points—to earn a basketball scholarship to Alabama A&M University, where his education led to his becoming a teacher, basketball coach and the first African-American high school principal in two Indiana high schools.
He’s also the first superintendent to win the Indiana State Superintendent of the Year award in two different districts: Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in 2002 and Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) in 2009, where he’s been superintendent since 2005. Indianapolis schools is the state’s largest and only urban district, and stretches across 87 square miles.
Another White “first” was becoming the first superintendent at IPS—where he faced a curriculum in disarray, no art and music classes in K12, and a 44 percent high school graduation rate—to offer graduation waivers to seniors who didn’t pass Indiana’s Graduation Qualifying Examination (GQE) in algebra and English. Failing the exam would have prevented them from graduating in spite of above-average performance in those subjects.
When he arrived at IPS in 2005, White encountered what he called a chaotic district structure. He and colleagues worked on a realignment, first by creating a centralized curriculum. Li-Yen Johnson, White’s assistant superintendent of elementary education at the time, says that through the Division of Curriculum that White created in 2009, collecting real-time student data in three- to four-week cycles changed the way the district provided targeted support for students.
“Consistent data collection and the analysis of student work put us on the path to real improvement, as well as holding principals accountable for giving teachers honest and actionable feedback, which was the focus of our professional development for principals in the last three years,” says Johnson, who today is the district’s associate superintendent.
Under White, the district also developed four magnet secondary schools: for law and public policy, performing arts and humanities, medicine, and talented and gifted (TAG) education. And the district offers 21 alternative optional programs, outside the typical school setting, for students with problems, from behavioral to learning. Other districtwide changes that White has spearheaded include implementing full-day kindergarten, and increasing the number of K8 elementary schools. “I think all of this helped reduce the dropout rate and increase performance,” White says. “We’re really starting to see the benefit.”
“The most impressive action Dr. White took was to implement strategies to change the culture of the district,” says Johnson. “He created the four district core values—respect, excellence, scholarship and courage—instituted dress codes for K12 students, and realigned the district to support the schools and families.”
White has earned less-than positive attention for implementing the waivers despite the positive effects they have had on the graduation rate at IPS. At times, he’s been at odds with officials at the Indiana Department of Education, who, according to multiple articles in Indianapolis media, have shaken a suspicious finger at IPS’ increased graduation rate, which rose to 65 percent in 2011, saying that waivers may be resulting in too many diplomas for seniors who would otherwise fail the test. One published report stated that IPS graduation rate would be more like 47 percent without the use of the waivers.
White implemented waivers believing they help seniors who wouldn’t normally pass the GQE, possibly due to test anxiety, but he maintains that it’s the system overhaul that began in 2005—not just waivers—that is improving the district’s numbers. “All I know is how we’re turning around the district,” he says.
The overall graduation rate is not the only measure of improvement in the district. Since 2007, the rate of students graduating with an honors diploma has risen (the number of African-American students in this group is up 9 percent), and the number of students graduating with general requirements has decreased. The number of African-American students in this group has dropped from 35 to 22 percent.
White also says that the district improved by 11 percent in language arts and math state test scores in four years, and that the dropout rate has been reduced from 36 percent five years ago to about 19 percent in 2012. “That’s been huge,” he says. “The goal is to increase the graduation rate to 75 percent by 2015.”
What Waivers Do and Don’t Do
White hasn’t always been a fan of waivers. He says he’s “very tough” about using waivers, and he didn’t use them at all for his first four years at IPS. When he saw other districts using them, however, he reconsidered his stance.
“Indiana is an anomaly for having a test to graduate from high school,” White says. “However, Indiana understands that some kids … are still working as hard as they can. When kids are working to be better off, I don’t think there’s enough we can do for them.”
To qualify for waivers, seniors have much to accomplish. Those who didn’t pass the algebra or English portion of the GQE must have maintained a C average or better in that subject during their senior year; must have taken advantage of any chance to take a regular school-year test a second time if they scored below a C; and must have had a 95 percent or higher attendance rate in English and algebra. In addition, they must have taken every opportunity to get remedial help during school breaks.
White used to let individual schools have the final say over which students earned waivers, but in the 2012-2013 school year, he’s bringing the decision-making process directly under him and some of his staff members. “You have to defend what you do,” says White. “By all means, don’t punish students by not using waivers. But keep a tight rein.”
White thinks he’s run into conflict with the state Department of Education more times than any other superintendent in the state. “My point to the state is still this: If you don’t want to be like 47 other states [that don’t require kids to pass a high school exit exam], change the criteria,” he says.
“Don’t complain about waivers,” he continues. “There are truly some kids who won’t pass the assessment” without the benefit of the waivers.
EUGENE G. WHITE
Indianapolis Public Schools
- Age: 64
- Salary: $200,000
- Tenure: 7 years
- Students: 31,000
- Per-child expenditure: $7,500
- Dropout rate: 19%
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 82%
Thanks for Job Well Done
White, who would have become an attorney or a minister if he didn’t go into education, says one of the greatest compliments he’s received for his work is thanks. “Parents who come back and thank me for providing their kids with an education that propels them toward success in their career” is appreciated, White says. “They share what the kids are doing. [And] you never know what the kids are doing [after graduation], so it’s always gratifying.”
Jennifer E. Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.