For this installment of our nonprofit leaders series, we sat down with Kristie Sweeney, CEO and Head of School for the South East Neighborhood School of Excellence (SENSE). Prior to her role at SENSE, Ms. Sweeney was an independent educator for transformational K-12 change, the regional director of Lighthouse Academies, and an elementary school principal in the IPS education system.
Pivot: What makes SENSE different from other charter schools?
Kristie Sweeney: Our school is the result of a grassroots, community effort. We’re not part of a national charter “chain.” Rather, the southeast community has come together to create and support this school.
Most of our kids live here in the neighborhood and reach our building by bike, car, or walking; using the Pleasant Run Trail Connector and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to do so safely.
An important distinction for us is our board: it is made up entirely of people who live in or have businesses in this community. We collaborate with the South East Neighborhood Development Corporation (SEND), and our students participate in community events like Art Squared.
P: Why is SENSE important to the community?
KS: At SENSE, we’re focused on serving the community and being a good partner for other southeast organizations. Our school educates, but we also connect.
We connect parents to one another and the school through our Parent Advisory Council. We connect students to the arts through our partnerships with the University of Indianapolis and the Wheeler Arts Building. We connect our students to the businesses and cultural opportunities of Fountain Square. We connect families to food through our Nutrition Club, a partnership with Gleaners Food Bank through which kids take home backpacks full of donated non-perishable items.
We are always looking to people in the community who are advocates to spread the word and inform us. Our neighbors are our greatest supporters.
The parents of our students are very involved, and they can see the value of their child’s education. They help us determine the needs of the school. We serve them, but we also rely on them.
P: What’s innovative about SENSE’s educational programming?
KS: Originally, SENSE promoted a project-based, critical thinking curriculum. We’re getting ready to re-assess and evaluate our charter because we are moving toward an applied learning curriculum. This shift would emphasize each child’s ownership over his or her own learning. We want to get them to think and give them skills and tools they can apply in real life. The new model revolves around workshops and real-world educational experiences.
For example, as a geometry lesson, we plan on taking our students to the corner of Prospect and Virginia in Fountain Square to see the new Pioneer Plaza under construction. This will be a perfect, living way to teach the kids about radius, diameter, area, etc.
I want our students to be proud of our community and to realize that it’s theirs to explore. Many of our kids have never been to a restaurant or gallery on Virginia Avenue even though it’s right in their back yard. I want to change this.
We’re currently developing a Southeast Community curriculum for our third-graders. They would have an opportunity to experience the history and culture of their own neighborhood, first-hand. I want them to be proud of their local heritage. In our community, we have ‘generational’ long-time residents and new, artsy transplants. It’s a combination ripe with opportunities for learning.
P: Do the arts play a role at SENSE?
KS: I believe that the arts help our students build their knowledge and experiences. We’re fortunate to be situated in a neighborhood that values and creates art. It’s a rich culture, and we help our kids tap into that.
Through our partnerships with the Wheeler Building and the University of Indianapolis, we open up the city to our kids. Our elective teachers participate in professional development workshops. And, our kids visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the symphony, and the Indiana Repertory Theatre. We’re even working on getting a kiln for the school.
On the First Friday of May (2013), the SENSE school will present our first Student Art Show at the Wheeler Building. This is an amazing opportunity for our young artists, and it will be a community fundraising effort for our arts program.
P: Why is SENSE a good fit for you?
KS: I’ve been urban all my life; I’ve never been happier. I love the kids. I love this community. I’ve turned around several schools around the state, via my consultancy work. But, it was time to work in my neighborhood, in my own backyard.
Kids need a voice. We educate the whole child. We work with the community. I feel like I’ve been embraced very quickly because I share a common vision with our neighbors. I have great support, and we are motivated to get things done.
To me, SENSE means great kids, great families, and a great community.
P: How can people help?
KS: There are several ways people can help the SENSE school.
Contact Kristie Sweeney to contribute your time, talent, or donations to the SENSE charter school.
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