November 1, 2017

What use is education if it doesn’t impact the community?

An innovative partnership in Indianapolis is empowering students through project-based learning and civic engagement

Students from Ignite Achievement Academy in Indianapolis recently held a peace march in their neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Ignite Achievement Academy


This is part of an ongoing series highlighting innovative new schools recognized by the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, which supports educators and social entrepreneurs who are transforming public education. See the full list of schools that are receiving investments from the nonprofit totaling nearly $4 million.

Indianapolis is buzzing with innovation in education. As education reform around quality and equity in education continues, Indianapolis Public School District is reinventing how it addresses the issue of underperforming schools. One of the solutions is to partner with innovative nonprofit charter networks that have unique programs that, if executed properly, can not only turn around once failing schools, but can also provide a much-needed shot in the arm to communities that need intervention and hope. Ignite Achievement Academy (IAA) is one such partner for the last true public community school in the city.

IAA and the partnership with the public school district’s historic Elder Diggs School is in the heart of the city right off of 25th and Martin Luther King St. The implications of the partnership are huge, especially for a school that was once a pillar of the community and named after Elder Watson Diggs, a local legend: the first African-American graduate of Indiana University’s School of Education, the first African-American principal in Indiana, and a revered founder of one of the oldest and largest Black Greek-letter fraternities.

Innovation is necessary. Ignite uses the latest research in neuroscience to understand how students—especially those in poverty—are affected by environment and how we as humans optimally learn. Ignite also believes in: a necessary and non-negotiable commitment to cultural and community responsiveness so that scholars see themselves and their community reflected in the curricula; a project-based learning model so that scholars not only understand theory but are able to understand through application; martial arts infusion to promote fitness, confidence, respect, bullying-awareness, and goal setting; financial literacy infusion so that young people begin learning the basics of personal finance, group economics, and the habits of the wealthy; a culture of mindfulness so that practice of the skill of concentration and focus coupled with the ability to self-regulate are trained consistently; and a commitment to character development, student voice, and habits of success. All of these unique elements of innovation at the IAA program at the historic Elder Diggs School have galvanized a community that has been ready for change for many years.

What good is a school if it teaches students only to amass knowledge to “get out” of or to “escape” the community that they grew up in, as opposed to using that knowledge to invest in and become the change needed to make the community flourish?

Even still, the question remains: for what? As the scholars leave the beautiful school building, renovated just before the turn of the century, they see the dilapidated homes and other effects of generational poverty driven by systemic oppression and institutional racism all too common in urban areas throughout the country. The symptoms of which manifest societal issues such as high violence, limited access to quality food, disparities in community health, and high incarceration and unemployment rates.

What use is education if it does not impact the community? What good is a school if it teaches students only to amass knowledge to “get out” of or to “escape” the community that they grew up in, as opposed to using that knowledge to invest in and become the change needed to make the community flourish? What is the point of school if it does not address injustice and poverty and seek to eradicate such? What good is education if it does not teach humanity, truth, and peace in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic? And what good is a high stakes test if many of the test takers are coming from environments where the basic necessities of life are not being met? It is difficult to focus on academics when children come to school hungry, do not have adequate shelter, or have to navigate yellow crime scene tape just to get to school. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows clearly what must happen before humans can tap into the potential of self-actualization to activate true genius.

Part of IAA’s plan for impact and innovation begins with the needs of the community. The Ubuntu spirt (I am because we are) is alive and well as the school tackles heavy issues such as poverty, hunger, and safety. The IAA Ubuntu Community Advisory Council was constructed to serve as an evolution of what most schools see as a Parent-Teacher Organization. The difference is that the Ubuntu Council is made up of parents, teachers, community stakeholders, grass top and grass roots leaders, as well as students to address concerns of school and community, while dreaming big for both.

One of the recent initiatives was to address and counter the rising violence in a school community that is traditionally high in crime. In fact, seven homicides have happened within a one-mile radius of the school’s front door this year alone. The need of the community spawned what was coined as the “Hotep March.” “Hotep” is an ancient African term, and one of the school values, that represents peace. As the culture of the school shifts to one of positivity, high expectation, and consistency, it was a powerful display to see several hundred students and several dozen community stakeholders take to the streets to march and demand peace in the community that we live and serve. School leaders and community organizers know this is only a scratch on the surface of change, as both make good on a renewed covenant that brings together the school and the community in order that the children may be positively reared by the whole village. The vision is becoming more and more clear as the people remember, rally, and unite on the shoulders and legacy of a giant, a man affectionately known as Diggs.

Brooke Beavers and Shy-Quon Ely

Ignite Achievement Academy

Brooke Beavers is a co-founder and Head of School for Ignite Achievement Academy. She has 15 years experience as a teacher and an administrator overseeing academics and instruction. In 2013, she received the “Tindley Torchbearer” award after being named “Teacher of the Year” at her school. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Riverside and a master’s degree in teaching from Chapman University in California. She earned a school administrator’s license from Marian University and is currently working on her doctorate in educational leadership at Indiana State University.

Shy-Quon Ely is a co-founder and Head of School for Ignite Achievement Academy. Before entering education, Shy co-founded FusiK MusIQ, an academic and character enrichment program for K-12 students in Indianapolis. He then led his students to achieve at high levels in the classroom at Tindley Preparatory Academy before becoming an administrator with the Tindley Schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree in health science from Purdue University, an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University and an education administration license from Marian University. He currently is working on his doctorate in educational leadership at Indiana State University.