||Tully: 'Relentless' education champion David Harris on leaving The Mind Trust
Matthew Tully, [email protected] Published 6:38 a.m. ET March 15, 2018 | Updated 10:49 a.m. ET March 15, 2018
(Photo: Charlie Nye / The Star)
David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, sat down Monday to talk about his decision to leave the groundbreaking local nonprofit, which he founded in 2006 with the ambitious goal of injecting urgency and on-the-ground support into the effort to improve Indianapolis schools.
Twelve years have passed and the education landscape has changed dramatically, and for the better, within the Indianapolis Public Schools district boundaries. And while many champions are behind that improvement, from educators and students to parents, advocates and even politicians, Harris’ role in the change is outsized and worthy of a few moments as he moves on.
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Without Harris and The Mind Trust, it’s hard to see how Indianapolis could have taken its place over the past decade as a city whose emerging education turnaround is a uniquely inspiring model for other cities. Without his demands for significant, smart change and his insistence that empowering school leaders would create a more dynamic education landscape, it’s easy to imagine the past decade being filled with more baby steps and not the tremendous progress we’ve seen.
“The idea behind The Mind Trust was that if you empower talented people who have big visions and then give them support and resources to execute on their vision, you can get great results,” Harris said.
The theory held and the results can be seen in many charter and district schools. Now, as he leaves The Mind Trust, Harris will take a new job as a founding partner at a new national nonprofit that will seek to carry his current organization’s success to other cities.
His theory from the start has been clear: Push power toward schools and educators, and away from central offices; remember that great teachers and principals are the most important factor in a school’s outcomes; invest in visionaries on the front end so that they can launch schools effectively; and hold schools accountable for results. He’s relied on that philosophy as his organization has helped build a large network of local charter schools and, now, charter-like schools that are part of IPS but also free to manage themselves.
“You have to have your north star, your focus on what you’re trying to do, and recognize that it takes a long time to get there,” Harris said. “It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. It’s an ultramarathon.”
Harris, who previously served as former Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter schools director, will remain in Indianapolis. But he’ll be missed by those of us who have appreciated his bold approach during big debates and his willingness to stand up when necessary to teachers unions and district traditionalists. And, of course, there is his core belief in the potential of all children, and in the idea that education reformers should work to bring communities together.
Education reform and school choice have been political firestorms for years and leading voices in the movement have been magnets for criticism. Some deserve that criticism, particularly those who rely on divisive rhetoric. And some debates have been ugly. But there’s a different, more remarkable and more collaborative story playing out locally of late, and Harris is on the list of those who deserve the credit.
If I had to boil Harris’ importance down to two points, it would be these.
First, he helped instill a real sense of urgency into the local debate about education. His organization has helped educators create and transform numerous schools and has attracted an absolute flood of great talent to the city, while also spurring IPS to take important steps forward in recent years.
As former Mayor Peterson, The Mind Trust’s longtime board chairman and co-founder, put it: “He’s relentless. He’s constantly thinking about how we can do things better and differently.”
Second, Harris’ organization, particularly in recent years, has put a tremendous focus on engaging the community and building relationships with the district. He met fierce resistance at times, but this has paid off in the form of impactful changes and, largely, an absence of the same type of toxic atmosphere we’ve seen elsewhere, particularly in D.C.
The most obvious example of this bridge-building is the city’s new and growing collection of “innovation schools,” which are part of a partnership between The Mind Trust, IPS and the city. The schools operate within the traditional district but have the type of flexibility seen in charters. It’s been a notable partnership between a district and education reformers, and it is an example of what can be done when the focus is squarely on what decisions mean for students.
The results have been promising. Several schools rated low by the state just two years ago now sport A and B ratings. More important, there seems to be a newfound belief within the state’s largest city that great things in education are possible.
“We’ve never received more positive feedback,” Harris said. “There was so much support for the idea of folks coming together, and in ways that are so meaningful.”
Brandon Brown, a Mind Trust senior vice president, and a highly respected former Indianapolis charter schools director, will replace Harris as CEO this spring. He’ll take over an organization with solid financials and a strong staff of 17 at a time of momentum, but it’s also a time when more progress is desperately needed. Despite recent advancements, far too many Indianapolis children are being left behind.
That’s a reminder of why forceful advocates of change, like Harris, are so valuable.
The Mind Trust’s top leadership will change, he said, but the mission will remain the same: To empower and support great educators eager to create better opportunities for more students.
“If you have a big vision in the private sector there is an incentive for others to invest in you,” Harris said. “In the social space there is not that same incentive. When we started, we thought that if we could provide that investment we would both help great educators in our community and attract some wonderful talent to it.”
The Mind Trust has done both, and Indianapolis is better off because of it.
Thank you for reading.