Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America

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Searching for Hope is a gripping account of life in a once-great high school in a rough Indianapolis neighborhood. Granted unfiltered access to Manual High throughout an entire school year, award-winning journalist Matthew Tully tells the complex story of the everyday drama, failures, and triumphs in one of the nation's many troubled urban public high schools. He walks readers into classrooms, offices, and hallways, painting a vivid picture of the profound academic problems, deep frustrations, and apathy that absorb and sometimes consume students, teachers, and administrators. Yet this intimate view also reveals the hopes, dreams, and untapped talents of some amazing individuals. Providing insights into the challenges confronting those who seek to improve the quality of America's schools, Tully argues that school leaders and policy makers must rally communities to heartfelt engagement with their schools if the crippling social and economic threats to cities such as Indianapolis are to be averted.

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1 WHY ARE YOU HERE?

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It was August 12, 2009, the first day of the school year, and I was already late. My plan was to walk through the front doors of Manual High School by 7:00 AM so that I could be there thirty minutes before the morning bell. I wanted to see what the students looked like as they entered the school and officially ended their summer vacations. Were they excited? Were they depressed? What did they have to say about the next nine months of their lives? But as I raced to the school, the clock in my nine-year-old Honda Accord showed that I was several minutes behind schedule. Just like when I was in high school, I thought to myself. Late as always.

My drive took me through the pride of Indianapolis, its compact but thriving downtown, and by the many office buildings that house the capital city’s top lawyers and lobbyists. I drove past Conseco Fieldhouse, home to the NBA’S Indiana Pacers, and then past the headquarters of the city’s largest and most important employer, the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Finally I entered the city’s near south side. Just three minutes from downtown, the community is full of old and intermittently abandoned homes, depressed neighborhoods, and the occasional graffiti-scarred building or empty lot. The area used to be vibrant—long ago, that is. These days it’s not the city’s worst neighborhood. It doesn’t have the worst crime rate. The neighborhood actually has many residents who still care, and other parts of the city have seen worse deterioration. But the neighborhood is hurting. In many ways it’s just hanging on.

 

2 I NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT HE WOULD BE A DANDELION.

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Sgt. John Barrow and I were walking down a hallway midway through third period of the school year’s first Friday when he got a call about a group of students who had been caught in the upstairs gym. The seven boys were skipping class and acting suspicious, another officer announced over the police radio. The day before, two students had been expelled for having oral sex in a nearby locker room. But the voice on the radio made clear to Barrow that he wouldn’t make it through this first week without a much bigger mess. “Let’s go,” he said.

Barrow had just finished giving me the first of many lessons he would deliver throughout the school year, lessons learned from more than a dozen years spent patrolling the halls of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). He called this one the “Dandelion Theory.” It’s based on the idea that you sometimes have to pluck out one troublemaking student so that the others can thrive. “I want my grass to be perfectly green,” said Barrow, an army veteran with a shaved head and a huge smile. “That means I want every kid in here to graduate and be happy. But if there is one dandelion, I can’t ignore it. I have to pull it out, or before long we’ll have a lawn full of weeds. It’s like cancer. Trouble spreads if you don’t watch out for it and do something about it.”

 

3 CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?

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The yelling spilled out of Dean Terry Hoover’s office on a mid-August morning. A battle-tested veteran of tough schools, Hoover had been Manual’s dean for seven years, her most recent stint in a three-decade education career. Her office was constantly filled with the sound of classic rock, the kind she had listened to in college. Her massive Hummer, parked in a spot in front of the school, could be seen through her office window.

Hoover’s office was ground zero for many of Manual’s most fundamental problems. It was filled daily with students headed toward suspension, expulsion, or some other penalty. It was home to many of the school’s most delicate conversations—conversations about anything from a student’s mental illness to past abuse. Some students, particularly girls, stopped by to talk about problems they were having with friends, enemies, or parents. Although the conversations often ended with Hoover sternly warning the girls about their behavior, many were open to the tough talk. They might not have taken her advice, but they smiled knowingly when she told them not to believe anything a boy said and to “keep an aspirin between your knees at all times.”

 

4 WE DO A GOOD JOB WITH THE KIDS WHO SHOW UP.

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At Manual many of the students don’t show up often enough to get left behind. I’d been at the school for less than a week but had already discovered that its most vexing problem was also the most fundamental: there was a basic inability to get students to walk through the front doors. Teachers repeatedly told me about leading classes that were missing half of their students. They complained about students who showed up once or twice a week, or students who walked out of or into a class midway through a lesson. Then they told me about the many students who simply never made it to school. Not for a month. Not for a week. Not for a day. And not for a single class. It happened every year, they said. It got worse as the school year went on, with many students—freshmen and sophomores in particular—disappearing. The missing kids were faded memories, their empty desks symbols of another generation of dropouts who would be forced to find a way in the world without even the most basic education.

 

5 I HATE THIS SCHOOL.

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I parked my car in front of Manual at about noon and walked toward the front door one day early in the school year. In recent days I had filled several notebooks as I wandered the school in search of column material, meeting dozens of teachers and students along the way. My initial column on the school, which I’d written the night before and had spent the morning polishing, would be running in three days. But there’s always another deadline, and my next one wasn’t far off.

As I approached the school, one of its doors crashed open. A man in a T-shirt and jeans barged out, his teenage son trailing him. The man was furious and mumbling to himself. As they walked, the boy, who I would later learn had been sent home for violating the dress code policy, meekly asked his father if he could drop him off somewhere.

I had already seen many parents leave Manual in anger. Actually, most who came into the school did so because their son or daughter was in trouble, meaning they invariably left irritated. So this wasn’t a particularly noteworthy scene. Not yet, anyway. That changed within a second. The man stopped and turned to his son with a face filled with fury. “I ain’t dropping you off nowhere, motherfucker,” he said sharply.

 

6 GO TO CLASS, ZACH.

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It feels a bit strange to bump into someone the day after you’ve put them on the front page of the newspaper. You never know what the reaction is going to be. Are they happy? Are they ticked off? Did you write something they want to complain about? What kind of reaction did they receive from friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers? This is particularly true for columnists. We are expected to make judgments about our subjects, to say things a reporter cannot, and to express our own feelings. The praise or complaints that come after a column can make for an awkward moment. I typically prefer for a few days to pass before coming across the person I’ve profiled.

Not that I worry too much about the potential for a complaint. I am a columnist, and that means sometimes writing critically about someone, some organization, or some program. My job isn’t to make everyone happy. In fact, it’s often the opposite. I’m supposed to offer my opinions and my analysis of the issues and people in the news—good, bad, or otherwise. Pick any issue worth writing about, take any side on it, and you’re guaranteed to tick someone off. At different times, I’ve been on the receiving end of complaints from governors, mayors, and a long line of other public officials I’ve put in the paper. Ultimately, though, the only reaction I fear is the charge that I got something wrong. Not a complaint that I was on the wrong side of an issue, or that my analysis was harebrained, but that I simply and indisputably got a fact wrong. Like misspelling someone’s name. Or getting an age wrong. Or writing that a new state program would cost taxpayers $45 billion as opposed to $45 million. Those types of facts—those nitty-gritty details that are so easy to screw up on deadline and that are peppered throughout any newspaper piece—keep me up at night.

 

7 WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE AVERAGE HERE.

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The thirty-one-year-old father of a Manual freshman walked into Dean Hoover’s office one morning. He moved fast and angrily and wore camouflage pants, a tan workman’s jacket, and a black cap. He came into the office without an appointment and spoke before being spoken to. “I want to talk to security,” he announced, interrupting a conversation I was having with Hoover and yanking off the cap to show a blond buzzed haircut and an earring in his left ear.

Hoover immediately recognized the man from previous visits and calmly asked him to sit down. He declined, pacing the room instead for a few seconds as he told Hoover that a boy at the school was harassing his daughter and that he was a few inches from handling the situation on his own, even if that meant throttling the boy. He said the boy, his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, was stalking her. The bullshit had been going on for a year, he shouted, but lately the situation had gotten worse.

Hoover looked up the girl’s class schedule on her computer as the man continued to talk, repeating his threat to take matters into his own hands. At one point Hoover hushed him as she held the phone to her ear and dialed the daughter’s third-period classroom, asking the teacher to send her down. Then she called Sergeant Barrow, aware that he might be the only one able to calm the man standing in front of her. As she hung up the phone, the father finally sat down. He began rubbing his face and looked just as flustered as he did when he walked in. “He’s been stalking my daughter for a year,” he said. “And now he’s hanging out with the guy who raped her last year. I don’t know what sick thing that’s about.”

 

8 WHERE’S THE SCHOOL SPIRIT?

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The missing pieces of Manual were everywhere. The school didn’t have a student council, I learned one day. Or a newspaper. Or a yearbook. Or so many of the things that scream high school and that are just as routine as math and science at other schools. Day after day, I would notice one more element of high school life that the cash-strapped school didn’t have. Once, I stopped as I wandered one of the hallways and jotted a few words into my notebook: “This school doesn’t seem to have anything.”

I wasn’t talking only about the programs and extracurricular activities. The school simply had no spirit. It felt like a sterile factory, and its students were the widgets. The goal was just to keep the dilapidated assembly line moving as much as possible and not to do anything more than that. I walked through the halls another day counting the many empty glass-enclosed cases that at other schools would be filled with memorabilia, photos, and information about student achievements. The only signs I saw on the wall had been taped up by the football coach. “Any student with the desire to play football, this is your last opportunity,” they read.

 

9 I DON’T LIKE BEING CALLED STUPID.

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As fall approached, I realized that my initial idea of spending perhaps the first quarter of the school year at Manual was not nearly ambitious enough. There were far too many columns to be written, far too many students with amazing stories to tell, and far too many complex issues to dig into. Plus, the readers were responding. Nine weeks would give me enough time to scratch the surface and to write a few thousand words of copy before returning to the grind of covering the state’s political scene. But I wasn’t interested in that. Manual was too fascinating, the scope of the subject matter was too complex, and my access was too good. I had been lucky to be a columnist for the previous four years—it’s the best job in newspapers—but there was something special going on, and I didn’t like the idea of stopping short. I was beginning to notice the story arc of the school year, and after investing so many hours into it at the start, I wanted to see how the story progressed.

 

10 YOU HAVE TO CRAWL FIRST.

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Every Sunday my latest column on Manual would run on the front page of the newspaper. That was an unusually high-profile location for columns. For four years most of my work had appeared on pages deeper inside the paper—the traditional home for opinion columns. But Manual was so full of amazing tales, interesting people, and wonderfully mind-boggling issues that the bosses had given these columns more valuable real estate. The depressing state of newspapers had no doubt contributed to their decision, as we simply had fewer reporters than ever to produce the copy needed to fill seven newspapers each week. My column had become a reliable filler of space every Sunday. Either way, I wasn’t complaining. The front-page placement had given the series a profile it never would have enjoyed on a less-prominent page. Everywhere I went, people brought up the series, the students, and teachers I was writing about. They asked about Allison and Kelly. They told me to say hi to Sarge. The attention the columns received made the decision to keep going back to Manual an easy one.

 

11 WE’RE DROPPING OUT.

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Two boys stood in the main office on a Thursday afternoon, talking quietly to each other as their mom sat in a chair a few feet away. They were an example of the dropout epidemic that is devastating many American cities and the mind-boggling lack of urgency that can be found in far too many communities. The boys, brothers named Tyler and Chris, were sixteen and seventeen, respectively. They were Manual students, but only officially. They hadn’t been inside the school in a few weeks, and they’d shown up only occasionally before that. And they didn’t plan on coming anymore. Their mom, a single thirty-something mother of six, had driven them to Manual that morning so that they could formally drop out. They were intent on becoming part of the huge collection of Manual students who failed to graduate.

The brothers were waiting to find someone to talk to when vice principal Alan Smith raced through the room. He was heading from one mess to another but stopped suddenly when he saw the boys. He’d gotten to know them during the previous school year—largely because they were frequently in the office answering to one infraction or another. Their biggest problems had been an unwillingness to show up for class and an inability to live by the school’s strict dress code. Despite the problems, and despite their unwillingness to give school much effort, Smith liked them. He gave a puzzled smile. “Long time no see,” he said.

 

12 I GET HIT ALL THE TIME.

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Dean Hoover was having one of those days. A day when her office was a nonstop burst of activity, filled with troublemaking students, perplexed parents, and enough drama to fill a few soap opera scripts. Shortly after nine o’clock, after Hoover dealt with a handful of other brush fires, a fifteen-year-old boy named Darnell walked into the room with his father, Bryan. Darnell, who had a smooth demeanor and a mild learning disability, was a frequent visitor to the office, and as soon as they entered he fell into a seat and leaned his head against the wall behind him. “Sit up straight,” his dad ordered.

The meeting had been scheduled so that Hoover and Jackie Sababu, the head of the school’s special education department, could talk about the trouble Darnell was causing. He received help from teachers assigned to students with learning disabilities but attended regular classes. And he was disrupting them constantly of late. Sababu said Darnell’s was a tricky case. He had a sweet and innocent way about him that masked much of the trouble he caused. He was friendly and apologetic, she said, a trait that had bought him a lot of leeway earlier in the year. Not anymore. He’d pushed things too far. His teachers were fed up. Darnell stared at the ceiling as she talked. “Look at her,” his dad said. “We’re going to have a long talk when you get home. He’s already on punishment until December.”

 

13 WE JUST COULDN’T GET ANYTHING STARTED.

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The leaves were falling, and the Indiana weather was turning colder as early November arrived. Manual had settled into its routines, both good and bad, and teachers and students were already looking forward to the winter break that was seven weeks away. The school had spent the year under a microscope. The district was watching it closely. Superintendent White spent many Monday mornings questioning Manual leaders about something he’d read in the paper, something that bothered him or, occasionally, even something that pleased him. But the close examination of the school was not due solely to the weekly front-page columns I was writing. White had long had deep concerns about the indifference that plagued the school and was pondering big shake-ups. Over at the statehouse, meanwhile, the state’s new superintendent of education had ordered the deepest look the state had ever taken at the school. It all resulted in November being a month of big changes at Manual with warnings of even bigger changes to come.

 

14 WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN, MR. GRISMORE?

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I walked out of Spencer Lloyd’s class on the Friday before Thanks-giving after watching his choir prepare for its upcoming holiday concert—the Christmas Extravaganza, he called it—which was less than four weeks away. I was amazed at how far Lloyd had brought the choir in such a short time. The students were more focused and sounded stronger than they had just a few weeks earlier. That seemed to be a pattern. Each time I returned to the class, the improvement was noticeable, even to me, a guy who loved music but couldn’t carry a note and didn’t know the first thing about singing. Many of the students were just starting to learn the basics of voice control and pitch, but they were improving.

The class had spent the period working on the classic “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The students’ voices filled the room as Lloyd conducted furiously and moved around to hear the different singers, to make sure all of the students were doing their part. “Come on, sing it, sopranos,” he said. “Altos, come on, guys!”

 

15 COULD YOU IMAGINE IF WE FILLED THE HOUSE?

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By the time late fall arrived, I had fallen quite hard for Manual. I barely tolerated the idea of spending time on any column that wasn’t related to the school. Often I would breeze into my office at the newspaper, fulfill my obligation by cranking out a quick political column for the Wednesday or Friday papers, and then head back to the school. I wrote dozens of columns unrelated to Manual during the school year, but most of them came and went without meaning much to me.

My Manual columns, though, meant something. The students and faculty had pulled me in. They had grabbed me with their stories and personalities and problems and dreams. I loved listening to students talk about their goals of graduating or going to college or just being happy. I enjoyed being pulled aside constantly by students and teachers who wanted to tell me the latest development in their life or class. I truly felt honored to be telling their stories, and I hoped they were helping. I even got a kick out of the occasional student or teacher who made clear they just didn’t like my hanging around. Being a witness to scenes like the one that played out after the arrest of Brent Walls, and getting to know his family, gave me an ever-deeper understanding of the issues standing in the way of improvement at the schools in America’s hard-hit cities and neighborhoods. It was all part of this amazing world I had tapped into.

 

16 IT FEELS LIKE I’M A SOMEBODY.

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The choir was roaring by early December. From the start of each class until the end, it was a wall of music. The students were filled with more confidence than ever before, and they spent each class eager to impress Spencer Lloyd, who had spent so many classes working with them and so much time after class talking them through their problems. They noticed things about him that were different, such as when he frantically labored through classes one week while suffering from a nasty cold, or when he let a student who wasn’t in his class paint a huge mural on the back wall of the class, or when he told them he loved them.

The holiday concert was approaching, and Lloyd had built an ambitious set list with the help of Michael Weber, the young band teacher with whom he’d spent many hours talking about the big things they wanted to accomplish. They had a dream of turning Manual into a school known for its top-notch music program. They thought a decent turnout at the holiday concert could help lead them in that direction. They had seen the demise of the football program and wanted to show the school district that their programs were on the way up. They believed that students desperately needed to feel pride in their school and that such a feeling would make them more likely and eager to come to school and succeed. The Manual music program could provide that inspiration, they insisted.

 

17 I USED TO BE BAD.

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Students and teachers returned from the two-week holiday break and quickly got to work on the second half of the year. Police resumed patrolling the halls, and administrators continued to prepare for the upcoming transfer of power at the top of the school’s leadership chain. In every way, Manual was back to being Manual. Still, the student population was diminished significantly from the first semester, as more than 10 percent of the school’s original roster of students had stopped coming or been kicked out. Many classes were now smaller, a clear sign of the city’s dropout epidemic. The only silver lining was that this had rid the school of some of its biggest troublemakers. That’s not much of a silver lining. Many of those kids were now out of school without a diploma, approaching adulthood with few options and setting examples for their younger siblings and their own children. At Manual the missing kids were like ghosts.

I walked into the building early on the first day of the new semester looking for new column ideas. I wanted to meet new students and teachers, to learn about other education issues and find columns that were different from the ones I had already written. Nonetheless, it was nice to see the old faces. Sergeant Barrow and the dean. Ms. H. and Ms. Winslow. And students such as Jammyra and Tricia, who were now only a few months away from graduating and heading off to college. Jammyra smiled and gave a loud customary huff, to underscore how busy she was, when I asked her how things were going one morning. She talked about the need to refocus on school. Her grades were still near the top at Manual, but she’d slipped a bit in the fall because of the many extracurricular activities she was involved in. She said she was now fighting a nasty case of senioritis. “I’ll fight through it,” she promised, and she did.

 

18 I KNEW I DIDN’T WANT THAT.

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Thirty-five years before I walked into Manual High School I began my own inglorious education career at Kuny Elementary. The one-story brick building sat in the middle of Gary, Indiana, a once-mighty steel town thirty minutes from Chicago that by 1974 was well into its steep and unyielding decline. The local steel industry, which had given healthy middle-class paychecks to generations of Gary residents, was crumbling. A city that was once the heart of northwest Indiana was now full of blight. In a region stung hard by a deep racial divide, whites had fled the city in huge numbers for the area’s surrounding cities and towns, leaving behind Gary’s increasingly overwhelming poverty and crime problems. The onetime home of the Jackson Five and scenic World War II–era neighborhoods was now home to a growing number of abandoned buildings and social problems. Those problems were only getting worse. The city was in the midst of a staggering population decline that would drop its number of residents by a third, or nearly sixty thousand people, from 1970 to 1990.

 

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