Tackling problems in a school district can be a little like renovating a house. You start off wanting to update the kitchen, only to find a plumbing leak. Then outdated wiring. Maybe even cracks in the foundation. Then you have to decide whether to just patch up problems or overhaul the whole thing.
When Aleesia Johnson stepped in as superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools in 2019, Indiana’s largest district was in need of much more than a patch job. The district suffered from crumbling infrastructure, shrinking enrollment, and deep racial disparities between specialty and local neighborhood schools.
“We started out thinking we were gonna solve one sort of problem and decided, you know what? Let’s really try to restructure our system to get at things like the experiences kids have, the choices families have available to them,” Johnson said. “There were multiple levers that we just knew we needed to pull on, and we could have done individual things over a longer period of time, but we took it all on in one swoop—which was a lot.”
Johnson, 45, has embarked on a massive plan to stabilize school buildings, enrollment, and finances, as well as level the opportunities for rigorous coursework and enrichment. The Rebuilding Stronger initiative, unanimously approved by the school board in late 2022, has sparked public debate and friction with charter and community groups over the use of school buildings, but Johnson believes it has the potential to boost student achievement and reduce racial gaps in Indianapolis in the long term.
“We know we live in a community that’s pretty racially segregated, so I’m not under the illusion that all of a sudden we’ll see these beautifully racially mixed schools,” Johnson said. “But I am hoping that we will learn what decisions that families make and why and how to incentivize [more equitable] decisions.”
Three-quarters of the district’s buildings are a half-century old or more, many underused and in poor shape. Johnson helped pass a massive school construction bond last May to build a new elementary school and update or remodel every school to meet a state building rating of “good” or better.
She has also worked to stabilize student populations in Indianapolis schools, some of which turn over as many as a third of their students in a given year. Indianapolis’ historically complicated attendance-zone system—with overlapping enrollment boundaries for its specialty magnet, charter, and Montessori schools and separate neighborhood school zones—has exacerbated the problem. Enrollment and transportation were prioritized differently for different schools.
“What we noticed is that, for our schools that were experiencing a lot of mobility, families weren’t moving from the east side to the west side, from the north side to the south side. They were generally moving in the same geographic region,” Johnson, a 2024 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, said.
The district used three years of school transfer data to consolidate all schools into four attendance zones, which will account for about two-thirds of student mobility. “A part of the theory is that, if I am a family and I move into a different part of my zone, the district has said we are still committed to transporting [my children] to that school if it’s within the zone,” she said. Each zone is designed to reflect the same racial makeup as the district as a whole, which includes roughly 40 percent Black, 34 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent white students.
About 1,400 students were displaced by school closures this year in zones 2, 3, and 4, more than three-quarters of whom were Black or Hispanic. However, the majority of displaced students moved to other schools in the district. IPS held enrollment mostly flat from 2022-23 to 2023-24, at just under 22,000, according to state data.
Education equity ‘in the blood’
Johnson, the first Black woman to lead the Indianapolis district, grew up on the south side of Evansville to the south of the city, in a family of educators concerned with racial equity.
Her grandmothers served as a special education aide and Sunday school teacher, respectively. Her maternal grandfather, Anthony Brooks Sr., was one of the first Black administrators in the community through the 1970s and ‘80s, including at the historically Black Lincoln School in Evansville. Her mother, Tijuanna Tolliver, a teacher and principal for more than 50 years, still leads the Lincoln Community School in Evansville.
“Folks will say it’s in my blood,” Johnson said. “Though I did not initially start off going into education, certainly that spirit of servant leadership has always been a part of the fabric of our family.”
Johnson said her family helps spur her district vision, too, as three of her four children attend Indianapolis schools in grades 8, 9, and 11.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and African-American studies from Agnes Scott College and master’s degrees in teaching from Oakland City University and social work from the University of Michigan. She said social work has informed the way she approaches managing people during the district’s difficult transitions.
A former Teach For America educator in New Jersey, Johnson led the KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School before joining the Indianapolis district in 2015 to head the Innovation Network Schools, a set of district-supported autonomous schools developed by the state. She expanded the network to let principals of low-performing district schools request innovation status to pilot new approaches.
“Indianapolis has a lot of funders and business leaders and parents, a lot of different political interests. It’s a very active education space,” said Robin Lake, the director of the nonprofit Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has studied the district over the last decade. “[Johnson’s] ability to collaborate with all the different actors, organizations, stakeholders in the city and in the state has been notable.”
Brandon Warren became a principal at the former Raymond Brandes School 65 on the south side of Indianapolis in 2019, the same year Johnson became superintendent, and said she takes a personal approach to work with staff.
“She really knows all of her leaders, which is a very hard thing to do in a large district,” Warren said. “You can have a genuine conversation with her and know she truly does care.”
Lake agrees. “Aleesia is, I think, a really humble and nonegotistical leader,” Lake said. “She puts the work first and she is truly agnostic on solutions.”
Building support and connections
The school board unanimously approved the Rebuilding Stronger plan in November 2022, but Johnson is still working to build community support during transition upheavals over school closures, staff reassignments, and construction projects. Over months, Johnson held more than 100 feedback meetings—including a dozen communitywide sessions and at least two sessions at each school.
Many of her efforts have focused on explaining how parts of the restructuring will work and why they are important. For example, parents have protested restructuring small K-8 schools into larger P-5 primary schools and eight new 6-8 middle schools. Some studies suggest students benefit from fewer school transitions between grades. Parents, though, have voiced concern about children adjusting to larger campuses.
Johnson understands the concern, but said larger schools will create the critical mass of students needed to expand the curriculum. For example, only 41 percent of middle grades now offer Algebra 1, 34 percent offer world languages or band, and 74 percent offer computer science. All of those will be universally offered in the stand-alone middle schools.
She recalled talking to principals of small K-8 schools trying to provide middle school algebra as well as increasingly needed social workers and other support staff. “The principal of this small K-8 school said, ‘You know, looking at the budget, the practical answer to that question is [the school] has got to hire a social worker who could support all kids, versus, you know, a handful who are ready for algebra,’” she said. “And I was just like, why are we asking you to make that choice, but we’re not asking the principal across town to make that choice?”
Warren recalled a similar problem at his 160-student P-6 Brandes School. “When I came to that school, they had not had music for several years. And as the proud new principal who had a music minor, I’m like, you know what? I want to bring a music teacher back in this building,” Warren recalled. “So we brought in a music teacher, but unfortunately, due to not having the enrollment, we had to cut that.”
Brandes was one of the schools closed at the end of last school year as part of the restructuring, and Warren this year took over the 500-student Carl Wilde School 79. “My running joke is that I’ve gone from a one-room schoolhouse to a college campus,” he said. “So now I can say yes, my students are going to have all of those experiences and be able to develop a love for the arts, to develop those athletic skills, that knowledge of coding, and all of the things that they didn’t have access to just because of budgets, because my superintendent took a stand on it.”
The district overhaul has caused tension in long-standing partnerships with local charter schools over how to fund schools and deal with closed buildings. Several groups declined to comment formally on Johnson’s selection, though they have issued joint statements with Johnson in favor of working with the district. While a state law requires districts to offer closed campuses first to charter schools for $1, the district wants to sell closed buildings to other government and nonprofit groups for closer to market price. A Marion County judge ruled in November that the district is exempt from the state law that would require it to sell two campuses to charters for $1 each, but that ruling is being appealed, because the district wants to be able to sell the buildings at market price and potentially work with other kinds of groups to purchase them.
While the district overhaul won’t be complete until 2025, Indianapolis has started to gain traction in improvement. The graduation rate rose from 73 percent in the class of 2021 to 77 percent in the class of 2022 with improvements across all racial and economic groups. Third graders’ reading performance on the state test has recovered 4 percent since 2021 lows from the pandemic, including gains in all student racial and socioeconomic groups. The district passed a $410 million capital bond in May to update all schools and build a new elementary campus, and the district increased its per-pupil spending by 1.8 percent for 2024-25, to $9,212. The district also negotiated a new two-year contract for teachers in November, including 3 percent raises on average for educators and bonuses for those with larger class sizes or job-sharing arrangements.
“What I have come to realize is that, regardless of your governance structure or your reporting structure, schools are living, breathing organizations that are both a reflection of and a window into what we have as a community decided to invest in and support,” Johnson said. “You can have schools of all types that are doing dynamic, incredible work, and some schools that are really struggling—it’s really about how we are aligning systems of support and enabling conditions around schools to best set them up for success. That’s really the bottom line.”