Profile: The Mind Trust’s Brandon Brown works to create quality schools in Indianapolis November 1, 2016

IFF’s profile this month is on Brandon Brown, Senior Vice President of Education Innovation at The Mind Trust.

What do you do at The Mind Trust?

As Senior Vice President of Education Innovation at The Mind Trust, my primary responsibility is to grow the number of high-quality schools in Indianapolis. We do this through a variety of pathways. Our Innovation School Fellowship provides essential time, resources, and support for outstanding leaders and school operators to launch fully autonomous schools within Indianapolis Public Schools, our state’s largest school district. Our Educator Empowerment Award affords existing high-quality IPS schools the opportunity to convert to Innovation Network School status, providing them with the autonomy to sustain their school models over time. Additionally, our Charter School Fellowship and Charter School Design Challenge offer pathways for entrepreneurial leaders to open charter schools that are independent of IPS. We also provide a broad range of support for schools and networks across Indianapolis to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students and our city.

Describe the unique partnership that The Mind Trust has forged with the Indianapolis Public Schools District.

In 2014, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law allowing IPS — and subsequently any school district in Indiana — to establish Innovation Network Schools. IPS Superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee worked with former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard to craft the legislation and advocate for its passage. Innovation Network Schools have the autonomy of charter schools and the resources of a large district. We think this represents the best of both worlds.

The law enables the district to establish fully autonomous schools in partnership with an independent operator.  While Innovation Network Schools are completely autonomous, they remain IPS schools. Therefore, the academic results count for the district, the students are counted as IPS students, and state funding first flows through IPS and then goes to the school operator. The operators gain access to free or low-cost facilities, transportation, and a menu of other district services.

Describe some of the obstacles that you’ve identified to supporting the growth of quality seats (public, charter, or private) in Indianapolis.

Prior to the Innovation Network Schools law, one of the biggest hurdles facing charter schools was identifying and financing affordable private facilities. Although that still remains a barrier, it has been lessened due to the Innovation Network School pathway. We continue to invest in the growth of “independent” charter schools, and we are working closely with IFF to identify solutions to get high-quality charters more access to affordable facilities.

Additionally, great schools are predicated on strong, talented teams. We are constantly thinking about strategies to grow pipelines of high-quality teachers. This challenge has become even more acute with the dwindling number of college graduates who choose to enter the teaching profession. Because of this, the talent issue will be an even bigger priority for us moving forward.

How can organizations such as IFF support the work of The Mind Trust and the growth of quality seats?

IFF is one of our closest partners. I have had the privilege of working with IFF for over four years both in my previous and current role, and the organization represents a tremendous example of the power of partnerships and the importance of working with really smart folks who have expertise and perspectives that we lack. It’s fair to say that we wouldn’t be in a position to maximize the opportunity in Indianapolis without such a great partner.

How did you end up joining the team at The Mind Trust?

I began my career as a Teach For America corps member, teaching high school English in St. Louis. My experience in the classroom forged a life-long commitment to closing the opportunity gap for low-income students. I then moved back to my hometown of Indianapolis in 2010 and worked for the local Teach For America office for 2 ½ years before being asked to serve as the Director of Charter Schools for Mayor Ballard. Interestingly, the Mayor of Indianapolis is the only mayor in the country who directly authorizes charter schools. In this role, I oversaw the opening of 15 schools, growing the Mayor’s portfolio to 39 schools. When the mayor’s second term was winding down last year, I was eager to join the team at The Mind Trust. The opportunity to work alongside such amazing people at an organization that has meant so much to our city is truly an honor.

What previous experience do you drawn the most for your current position and why?

I keep pictures of my former students in my office. When I’m having a particularly challenging day, I look at those pictures and remember my students’ faces, stories, triumphs, and challenges. The stories of students like Kedra, Clyde, Daymeisha, and Reyko sustain me and continually instill an incredible sense of urgency to get this right for students in Indianapolis — kids who look a lot like my former students and face many of the same challenges.

When did your interest in education begin?

I’ve always been interested in education, but what really sparked it for me was when my parents adopted a 1-year-old girl from China. I was a senior in college at the time, and it really struck me that my sister, who was abandoned when she was just a few days old due to China’s one-child policy and lived in a crowded orphanage for the first year of her life, would now be part of a middle-class family and live in a neighborhood with access to great public schools. I couldn’t help but think about the millions of children who have lived in America their whole life who lack that access because of their zip code, their parents’ income level, or the color of their skin. It wasn’t fair that my sister would be afforded opportunities that so many other children are denied. So I decided to try to do something about it.

What do you do in your down time?

I’m a very boring person. My life is my work and my family. Away from work, I try to spend all of my free time with my amazing wife, Taylor, and our two young sons, Davis and Owen. Whether it’s reading books before bedtime, going on long walks, or spending time at the park, it’s great to decompress with my family after a hard day at work. We live in the city just a block away from an IPS school, and my wife is the Director of Talent Strategy for IPS. It’s important to both of us that we make our home in the city that we serve.

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