How Brandon House Created His Own School Through The Mind Trust Innovation School Fellowship

Feb 23, 2022 • Views -

Brandon House has the unique opportunity to create his very own charter school. Through The Mind Trust Innovation School Fellowship, a fellowship for professional educators, Brandon is currently in Indianapolis receiving coaching and support from leaders across the education sector with the goal of eventually launching or restarting a school in the Indianapolis Public School district. 

The talented leaders accepted to this fellowship for educational leadership have the unprecedented opportunity to launch schools that have the freedoms, flexibilities, and autonomies of charter schools with the support and shared services of a district school. Each fellow receives one or two years salary at up to $125,000 a year, healthcare, and benefits as they develop their school model. Innovation School Fellowship alumni have launched 21 autonomous Innovation Network schools in Indianapolis since 2014. 

ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson interviewed Brandon to learn about how The Mind Trust fellowship for professional educators is preparing him to add another school leadership experience to his resume, through a school that he is developing himself through the support of the Innovation School Fellowship. Brandon shares his career journey before this fellowship, the opportunities this fellowship provides and his fellowship application tips for aspiring candidates. 

​​Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Hello, everyone. I’m really pleased to introduce a fellow from The Mind Trust who is currently undertaking an Innovation School Fellowship. His name is Brandon House, and I’m really pleased to interview him today so that he can share a little bit more about his experience on the fellowship and even about his career leading up to the undertaking of this fellowship, which is going to be opening applications very soon in the fall season. In preparation for that, we wanted to let aspiring candidates know what it’s like to undertake a fellowship like this one. 

Through this fellowship, Brandon House is going to be spending two years developing a K-8 school model that aims to develop students academically through a rigorous academic program, supported by strong community partnerships and emotional development. This charter school is going to cultivate creative, compassionate, civically engaged leaders who are active within their local and global community by providing a place-based instructional approach, partnerships with the community organizations, and a focus on supporting the whole child. He’s had the opportunity to get the funding, support, and network to do this through The Mind Trust School Innovation Fellowship, which is based in Indianapolis. 

So let me just give a little bio about Brandon before we get started. Brandon is a native Hoosier who has spent the last seven years in leadership at Young Audiences Charter School in New Orleans, most recently as Head of Schools. He’s also held teaching positions in Indianapolis at IPS and Wayne Township Schools. House’s leadership at the Young Audiences Charter School led to a significant increase in student academic achievement, student enrollment and retention, and teacher retention. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Taylor University and a Master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision from Ball State University. So, Brandon, welcome. We’re very happy to have you here.

Brandon House:

Thank you. I’m excited to be here and talking with you.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Thank you. And we’re excited to speak with you. Before we get too much into the details about the fellowship itself, which is what you’re currently doing, I would love to know a little bit more about how you entered the field of education. What inspired this move?

Brandon House:

I think my inspiration for being in the field of education started long before I even thought about school at all. I was a good student growing up in school. I grew up in a city, not too far from Indianapolis called Evansville, Indiana. And I attended high school at what was notoriously known as one of the worst high schools in the city. I have a very vivid memory of a time where I was in the 8th grade, preparing for high school and the school counselor came up to me as I was getting ready to sign up for high school courses. She said, “You’d be taking all of the academic honors courses if your parents allow you to attend the school.” And that was sort of the first trigger for me to let me know that there wasn’t a good connotation about the type of education that I received, but went on and graduated from that high school, fourth in my class and went on to Taylor University.

And I remember something that was so vivid and triggering for me. My first year at Taylor, I once again graduated with academic honors fourth in my class, had taken a calculus class, but when I took the entrance exam for math at Taylor University, I failed it. I was very devastated that I failed this, and looking at some of my roommates and peers that were taking the same test, they excelled. “Oh, it was so easy.” And I started to think about some of the comments they were making, like, “I can’t believe that my high school education paid off. I can’t believe that math class that I barely paid attention to, it helped me pass.” And all of those things. And I realized right then and there that the educational pathway that they had taken to get to Taylor, was very different than mine, and the educational opportunities they were given, even the level of rigor that they were given, was very different than my own.

Brandon House:

So it really started me on this pathway to just think about, “How can I make a difference and provide a better educational baseline for students who grew up in a situation similar to mine? And to create something that students can learn and be proud of?” They love learning, they can love learning about how to be a better whatever it might be in the future, aspiring to have these dreams and not feeling trapped, because they didn’t get the opportunity to learn something that seemed to be out of reach. So, that was my inspiration for getting into education.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. We have so many interesting parallels from our life, but I’ll leave that for another time. So you’re currently a Mind Trust Innovation School Fellow. And I do want to get into the details of that fellowship experience. But first, tell me a little bit about how your career led you to this fellowship.

Brandon House:

It’s funny. I started off in Indianapolis Public Schools. I loved the school that I was in. I actually worked in two schools in IPS, and I just genuinely enjoyed every minute of it, partially, because the students I worked with were students who had similar backgrounds to mine. I grew up in a very low socio-economic status. Both parents were at home, but growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. So just being able to experience the same experiences that some of the students in my schools experience was something that was important for me. 

And so I taught there, taught 5th grade, and then I went on to teach in Wayne Township. It’s funny, the way I ended up in Wayne Township was because I was a fourth year teacher. I just won Teacher of the Year in IPS. And IPS announced that they were having some challenges financially and they were doing a reduction in force. So, being the low man on the totem pole, I got the pink slip, which is unfortunate, but it would set me on a different trajectory, which I’m very grateful for, and ended up in Wayne Township, which is also a very similar demographic to the school that I was at. Very similar challenges and I got the opportunity to teach there as well. I was finishing up my Master’s degree at Ball State. And as I was finishing up my Master’s degree in Ball State, I knew that I wanted to move into administration. And I heard about The Mind Trust through a newspaper article where one of the first Mind Trust fellows, Earl Phalen, received this opportunity to be a part of the fellowship.

I actually applied to [work at] his school. I tried before I decided to make the move to go down to New Orleans. And so, right before I applied to his school, I actually applied to The Mind Trust as well and decided, “Hey, if he can do it, if he could start his school, I can start a school as well.” 

Obviously, initially I did not get the fellowship, which I believe is a blessing because I was afforded the opportunity to go down to New Orleans and lead a small charter school there that turned into a very large network after a few years. I learned a lot about what it takes to lead a charter school and learned a lot about what it takes to be a principal. And a few years later, I had the opportunity. I found out once again that The Mind Trust was still looking for fellows and I applied and ended up being accepted.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s great. That’s a good story. I mean, you tried before, you didn’t get into the program, but maybe timing is everything. Because now you’re there on the fellowship after having all this experience in New Orleans, building that whole new school system there. My next question that I wanted to ask, what is the day to day like in the first year of this particular fellowship? What do fellows do? Who do you have the opportunity to interact with? So that maybe aspiring applicants can know what they’re getting themselves into when they apply.

Mind Trust Innovation School Fellow Brandon House
Mind Trust Innovation School Fellow Brandon House has the unique opportunity to develop his own school within the Indianapolis Public School District through the support of this fellowship for educational leadership.

Brandon House:

I really love the first year of the fellowship because it’s been a learning opportunity for me. I’ve spent the majority of my time really digging into the things that I’m passionate about, learning a little bit more about what it takes to be a charter school leader and really getting into the details. When you’re in a Master’s degree program, they give you very high level theory practices. But the great thing about The Mind Trust is that they have phenomenal partnerships with really strong vendors, really strong educational partners that can really dig into what it takes to be a school leader, thinking about specifics and how you’re going to move your school forward. Those are some of the things that I’ve had the opportunity to do with The Mind Trust, but then they’ve also given me a few tasks on my own to get the ball rolling, to get my school started.

So I had the opportunity to establish a school board for the school that I’m opening. I had to have 100 interviews with community partners and just try to figure out who would be great people to be on the board. Who would be great community partners for the school? And just have those one-on-one meetings with people just to get familiar with the city. It was seven years ago that I was in Indianapolis. And so coming back to the city, I had to relearn a lot of what’s going on among the educational landscape and make sure that I’m familiar with what the needs are for the students. Those have been the biggest tasks going on, and, obviously, getting prepared to open up a school, there’s a little bit of paperwork and things like that that you have to do, but most of it is mostly centered around learning the community, learning and honing in and sharpening your skills as a leader.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

What I understand is that you’re currently putting in your application now for the charter school that you’re starting. So in the first year, it’s preparing, putting all the foundational pieces in place, and then do you apply to the state? Or how does it work in your system?

Brandon House:

Yeah. Right now in the city of Indianapolis, there is an opportunity for prospective charter school leaders to send in their application through the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office is actually the authorizer. There are several different ways that you can start a charter school. But my particular way is, I am pursuing a restart option in Indianapolis, which basically means that I’d like to partner with Indianapolis Public Schools. And as they see an opportunity for a school that might need a restart in their educational structure, then a school like mine could come in and say, “Hey, we want to partner with you to be able to restart that school.” So that’s really what’s happening right now. I’m filling out that application and submitting that, and then having those interviews with the mayor’s office. Once they authorize the charter, then I’ll be able to go to IPS and say, “I’d like to partner with you,” in whatever educational opportunities there are moving forward.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. So then the fellowship itself really puts you at an advantage, I guess, compared, maybe, to other people that are applying for charter schools because of the resources and the network that you have through the fellowship?

Brandon House:

Right, yeah. They are just very familiar with the educational landscape, like I said before, of Indianapolis. And so just having the opportunity, just to gain all the information, knowing how to prepare for a meeting with the members in IPS and how to think about the ins and outs that you would never think about on your own. They really set you up perfectly to be able to communicate about your school, about what you’re very passionate about and really get out there in front of the community and show that you’re ready to serve them in any way possible.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s great. And my next question though, is for applicants to The Mind Trust Innovation School Fellowship, maybe who are not from Indianapolis, like you are. What could be helpful to know about Indianapolis and the school systems there, and educational challenges or advantages that might be there, for people who are not from the area?

Brandon House:

It’s funny because I thought that being from Indianapolis, I knew what the educational landscape was like, but a lot has changed, and for the better, I think. Indianapolis is a community that is ready for change in terms of instruction. They are open to new and innovative educational opportunities. And it may take a little bit of time just to get familiar and explain what your process is as an educator. But I think that a lot of the people that I’ve met with, a lot of the organizations that I’ve met with, they’re curious about what new things there are out there for their children. There are lots of families who are willing to explore what it’s like to have their child attend a STEM school or a classical education school or whatever it might be. They’re looking for those opportunities to do something that’s more niche, I guess you could say, but also they’re looking for something that’s just going to provide a really high quality education for their students.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s great. Now, what fellowship application tips would you give for aspiring charter school founders who come across this fellowship that might be considering applying in this next application cycle?

Brandon House:

I think the biggest tip that I would give is… Well, there’s two of them. First is thinking about being very clear about what you’re passionate about. You don’t necessarily have to know exactly where your school model is going, but you have to know who you are as a leader and where you’d like to build your school. What sort of values and what sort of interests do you have personally, and how can you really establish that as a school? Just being very clear about that.

But then also The Mind Trust itself, before you even apply, they want you to be successful. So they have these opportunities to have office hours, where you can meet with the members of The Mind Trust and really just learn a little bit about, “What are the needs of the city?” You can learn a little bit about how other fellows in previous cohorts were successful. And you can really take that information and tailor it and put it into your application. But I think from me, what I’ve learned is that, it’s really about being authentic, being passionate and being willing to take that opportunity to be an autonomous leader and really hunker down and do the work to do the right thing for students in Indianapolis.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. And just a timely question around this is, what about the pandemic? How do you think this has really impacted schools in the last two years, especially in Indianapolis? Is this something that a fellow coming in might need to address in their application and then also, what might they need to know about the school systems there and how they’ve been responding to the pandemic?

Brandon House:

It’s definitely something that I think every school leader should be ready to address, not because of COVID, in particular, but just because, like I said earlier, I think that schools, especially schools in urban settings, are looking for a little more innovation. They’re looking for an opportunity to think outside the box, to reach their students in a different way. So with COVID, it really just provided school leaders an opportunity to be creative and say, “We can still deliver high-quality instruction to your child in a way that best fits their needs.” And so just thinking about other opportunities, and even, like I said before, The Mind Trust has had some creative ways that they’ve been able to bring students in, to bring them the education through their summer learning labs that they have. You can partner as a school leader in that.

But then making sure that you’re just outside the box. There’s really no other way to say it, except for that I think a lot of schools really are being strategic and intentional and personal about how they deliver instruction to students, because they know that the families want it and they know that the families need it.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That makes a lot of sense and I imagine that you are going to have to keep being innovative over the next 5, 10 years as other challenges come up, because this is just one of many challenges that schools face. I have a little curveball question for you. What do you wish you had known about this fellowship before you had undertaken it? It could be a good thing or not so good thing.

Brandon House:

That’s a good question. I think this is a part of the leadership journey, but I learned that it is really important to make sure that you are connected to your stakeholders and connected to the people that you serve. And it’s easy. I saw this and experienced this a lot as a charter school leader in New Orleans, and I think that charter school leaders around the country are really learning this lesson that it’s easy for us to create a model and say, “It works. Scientifically, we’ve done the research, just go with it.” But when you take a model and you just plop it in the middle of a neighborhood or a city, it has to fit their culture. It has to fit what they need.

And so I didn’t realize how intentional the school leaders here in Indianapolis and within The Mind Trust, how intentional they are about really making sure that the city understands their mission, their purpose, and how much they as school leaders need to understand what the needs of the families are. That’s really been something that has been a little bit of a learning curve for me: recognizing that I’m not the one with all the answers and it’s going to take a village to really make a really strong school.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s great. Now people know that I love fellowships. At ProFellow, we collect fellowships, we share fellowships because they’re these really unique funding awards and provide these networks and support that you really can’t get elsewhere. I’m just curious, in terms of this particular award, The Mind Trust School Innovation Fellowship, what does this fellowship provide you that you couldn’t get in a regular career pathway, or perhaps on your own, if you try to do this on your own? What does the fellowship provide that’s really unique?

Brandon House:

I tell this to people all the time. My former assistant principal, operations manager now, down in New Orleans, gave me a call and asked the same exact question. And I said, if I tried to gain all of the knowledge that I’m gaining right now through The Mind Trust while I was still leading a school, it would never happen. The Mind Trust has provided me with time and opportunity, the collection of high-quality resources, leadership, all of those things. It has been really great for me because even though I was, I thought, an experienced school leader, an experienced educator, there was so much more that I needed to learn. But I knew that I couldn’t access it because I was in the day-to-day at a school learning and all of those things.

And now I’m ready to roll. I’m ready to head back into a school and take all of the knowledge that I’ve received through the fellowship and really apply it. And so I’m excited for year two, where we really dig into what does a playbook look like? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? How can you really bring that detailed plan that you created in year one and put it into practice?

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That is great. And The Mind Trust truly is exactly that, a mind trust of expertise and knowledge. That’s great. One last question for you, Brandon. So you’re about to enter, or you will be entering your second year of the fellowship, this is a two-year fellowship. What are your big goals for the second year of the fellowship? And then also beyond the fellowship, like leveraging the fellowship for future impact?

Brandon House:

The biggest goal for me in the fellowship is really gaining more knowledge about my school model. So my school model is centered around project-based learning and really gaining a lot of knowledge and going out to visit schools that really do this well so that way I can take those tools, those systems, and those structures and make them work well for me at the school. And so organizing a play-by-play book and really saying, “This is how we function as a school,” is what the goal is for year two and really nailing it down, acquiring a team that’s going to be centered around me, sort of as that founding school leadership team. And then from there, moving into 2023 as we open our doors, we’re looking to hire teachers and other school leaders and other roles at the school just to get it started.

We’re hoping to open in the fall of 2023 in Indianapolis and really supporting students and a community. We’re looking to support those families that really want to not only have a high quality education for the kids, but they want to establish their students to be leaders in their community, but then also have current leaders in the community come and mentor those students. That’s the mission of our school. We want to create these caring, compassionate leaders that are willing to take their talents to serve their local and global communities.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Brandon, it sounds to me like you could be ushering in the next future cohorts of Mind Trust fellows through your work. That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much for sharing your experience, especially your experience on this fellowship. And like I said, The Mind Trust is going to be opening applications again in the fall with a January deadline for the next cohort or the next fellows that are going to be selected for this unique fellowship. So definitely follow the information on ProFellow and The Mind Trust website for information about those applications. And of course, I’d love to thank Brandon for sharing his experience for aspiring applicants. I think that was very helpful. Thanks so much, Brandon.

Applications open in Fall 2022 for the next cohort of The Mind Trust Innovation School Fellows. Join an upcoming information and networking event with the Mind Trust. Learn more and register for an event here!

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