Taking on the top spot in a new district always comes with its share of challenges — and for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), where scandals have marred what was once heralded as a national success story, stepping into that role could very well be considered a Herculean challenge.
But Lewis Ferebee, who made a name for himself during his five years at the helm of Indianapolis Public Schools, thus far appears at ease as he faces those challenges and lays out a path to regain the public's trust and establish DCPS's image as a model urban district.
Education Dive recently spoke with Ferebee to learn more about his plans coming out of his first 100 days on the job, pending cuts to the central office, and his growing reputation as a "Zen-like" leader.
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What, from your time in Indianapolis, would you say are probably your biggest lessons learned? I've read that you were really loved by a lot of people, but there were also segments of the community, as with anyone, who kind of disagreed with some things.
LEWIS FEREBEE: You learn early on that bold and courageous leadership is not a popularity contest. In fact, I've learned that when you do push for better for students who are historically not performing well, you disrupt naturally some systems that have benefited adults and not necessarily children. When you do that, there comes some pushback with that disruption. So, I have experienced that a couple times in my career.
It was very comparable in Indianapolis, where there was some pushback from some of those standard practices that needed to be shifted. What I have appreciated about the experience in Indianapolis was it was the first time I'm dealing with collective bargaining. It wasn't a part of the landscape in North Carolina. It was my first time as superintendent with board leadership and collaboration with the city administration and the mayor, leading the charge on legislation that would shape new laws and policies for the state of Indiana and really begin to build a new arsenal of tools around political advocacy and government internal relationships. I believe those experiences have really helped shape and prepare me for this opportunity in D.C.
Regarding D.C., what are some of your overarching plans coming out of your first 100 days — especially as far as restoring the public trust in the district after some of the scandals in recent years?
FEREBEE: The first acknowledgement that I've been really clear about is you don't build trust overnight, and you can only move at the speed of trust. For me, the work in D.C. will be very measured and calculated based on where we are in that trust spectrum. It's important to be really responsive to the needs and the things that I've heard from staff and the community and students and families.
A great example of that is this overwhelming desire to have more technology in our schools. We're very fortunate to collaborate with the mayor, Muriel Bowser, who in her budget included an investment in DCPS to have 1:1 devices as part of a multiyear approach to technology in schools. There are many other examples that I can point to, like investments in mental health, which was, again, reflected in the needs and desires I heard from families.
I think the first step for me is that investments reflect priorities, and that our priorities in the budget reflect what I've heard from the community. That's from a starting point of building trust and being responsive outside of that — being really thoughtful about ensuring that I'm hearing from our constituents in their neighborhoods and in their communities, but also ensuring that I'm accessible in very informal ways so the dialogue can be meaningful and purposeful. I've created several unique opportunities for me to engage with students, families, community members, focus groups, one-on-one coffee chats — just creating a lot of platforms for those conversations to occur, for people to meet me, and for me to get to know the community.
It's been reported that there are going to be some cuts in the central office. With that in mind, how do you weigh those decisions, especially considering that sometimes things like administrative bloat in central and school offices are often topics of criticism in the educational world?
FEREBEE: You hear that everywhere, you know — "If there were less people in central offices, schools could have more resources." I think in this situation, it was one of those scenarios where we need to balance our budget, and we believe putting investments closer to the schools was the right thing to do. Clearly, schools are always going to be the unit of change and transformation. We have invested in a number of strategies we believe not only put resources closer to schools, but empower schools to do the work of transformation. That's a lesson definitely coming out of my experience in Indianapolis.
I think the other lesson that also shaped my beliefs and philosophy is ensuring there's that appropriate runway of engagement so communities can have that level of agency. And [I’m using] that same process here in D.C. It was very much reflected in the last couple of years of the work we were doing for school improvement in Indianapolis.
Have the teacher strikes in different cities around the country influenced the way DCPS is thinking about its strategy?
FEREBEE: I haven't tracked most of the protesting recently. I know when I was in Indianapolis, the conversation was a lot around teacher compensation. I’m really proud that, even in my last few months, we were able to reach an agreement and another record-breaking compensation model with the local teachers union. And it was reflective of a multiyear approach over my tenure to raise teacher compensation after about half a decade of no raises for teachers. What I was seeing at the time — and I don’t know if that's still true today — [was] an outcry from school districts and teachers who had gone years without raises. In fact, what we found in Indianapolis is that if you account for the cost of living, teachers were actually earning less than what they were decades ago.
Improving teacher compensation is an important topic. I think communities where we don't see the compensation aligned to where teachers should be for cost of living, we should be doing everything possible to compensate those teachers. I know here in D.C., we have very competitive compensation. We'll be entering into the bargaining phase soon, and we'll be ready to have a meaningful discussion about how we can continue to take care of our teachers. But having exceptional educators in the classroom and retaining talent is critical to providing students with the best learning experiences.
One of the most frequent things that I've seen written about you is that you have a very "Zen-like" demeanor.
FEREBEE: I don't know who started that. That's kind of followed me, but I've embraced it. I think it's kind of a family trait in some ways, part of DNA. But you know, I learned [that] early on in the classroom, so I'm gonna give you a classroom experience:
I noticed a colleague of mine got laryngitis and was kind of whispering throughout the day for a couple of days as she lost her voice. We both noticed that the quieter she was, the quieter the class was. When she finally gained her voice back, she said, "You know, Lewis, I'm going to keep this kind of monotone, softer voice and see how the classroom responds."
Ultimately what we determined from that experiment was you can often drive the tone of young people and the people around you based on your tone. As far as I know, that teacher has always since then used a softer voice. You go into her classroom and you'd be amazed how the tone of the classroom reflects her voice. I've always thought as a leader, whatever capacity that is, I am the one that sets the tone. And I've always believed that, in this profession, you can't get too high and you can't get too low. If you do, oftentimes what you do dictates how other people respond.
So it's a little bit of DNA and then a little bit of my understanding of how important it is for me to be a balanced leader. I can exercise voice when I need to, but I also know that sometimes people appreciate someone who is kind of steady and calm. Sometimes when somebody says, "Oh, this person is soft spoken," I think that can be interpreted in different ways. But for me, when I've seen that [description], it hasn't been offensive because I know, again, when I need to use voice, I will.
What would you say is the most surprising thing you've learned about the superintendent position since you first took on one of these roles?
FEREBEE: You know, you hear people talk about big "P" politics, small "p" politics and how much that is part of education. Historically, they've been kind of lockstep. It is right up in your face, front and center, in these roles when you're leading large organizations. I don't know that it's unique to urban settings, but that's primarily where I've served as superintendent and chancellor. You can't navigate the space well if you don't learn how to be politically savvy.
[With] a board member in Indianapolis who is very experienced in the political space, we kind of reached this agreement at one point where we both acknowledged that a lot of time, politics is about making and meeting compromises to advance an agenda. I've learned that if you are able to skillfully make the right compromises and agreements to move the agenda forward for children, you can get a lot done.
But if you're not willing to make any compromises or look at any views in a different way or negotiate, sometimes you miss those opportunities to advance for educational outcomes. I have thought about that a lot in that there's certain values that I have, obviously, that are line-in-the-sand. But I also have learned that you have to be nimble and agile as you think about your political strategy. I'm still evolving, but I'm much more advanced than what I used to be.
How does that come into play when you're coming into a district where there have been some scandals, like D.C. has had in the past few years?
FEREBEE: I think there's clearly a need for stable leadership. One of the challenges with trust, when things haven't gone well, is people are looking for the next leader to be the person to take the district to a better landing spot. Ensuring that there's very clear vision of what that landing spot looks like is important, and it's part of my role. But I also believe that part of what we do is to acknowledge that this is a people business. When you're in a people business, things are going to be good sometimes, and then there are going to be some failures on the way. Most importantly, people want to know that you're going to share with them — the good, the bad and the ugly.
What I have tried to do is not paint a picture that's too rosy as I talk about our work, where we go, what we need to do and some of our challenges. If you're able to acknowledge both the wins and the challenges along the way, people seem to gravitate to your message. Having an appreciation that you know that there's always room for improvement, and then that you're asking for help in those areas where you do need to improve. And acknowledging that it's not just on us, the public institution or DCPS, to do the work, but that we improve outcomes when we have collective responsibility. Those are ways that you can begin to craft a message that brings hope and optimism, because we all have situations where things may have not gone the way we wanted them to, but it's how we respond that ultimately shapes what happens in the future.
In D.C., there are a lot of people rooting for us to be a beacon of education in the nation that we have been and can be. I intend to fully leverage that in every way possible. But also, again, while acknowledging where we need to improve.