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24 I’M WILLING TO RUN THESE SCHOOLS.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Manual seemed to be in a leaderless rut by April. Principal Grismore was out of the school often and was frequently distracted by his new duties at district headquarters when he actually was in the high school building. Vice principal Elizabeth Owens had been selected to replace him as the school’s top boss. But she was a low-key, behind-the-scenes type of administrator, who would not ascend to her new role until summer and who spent the semester hobbled by a nasty back injury.

This was particularly disturbing because schools like Manual desperately need strong and vigilant leaders. Paul Pastorek, who as Louisiana’s superintendent of education led New Orleans schools through a dramatic post-Katrina transformation, insists that strong school leadership—leadership freed from district bureaucracy—is key to success. Manual not only lacked strong leaders but also was hampered by a suffocating top-down approach within the district. “What has to happen in public education,” Pastorek said when we talked in 2011, “is that principals have to run the school. The future has to be about pushing responsibility, accountability, and autonomy to the principals. There has to be a person who can bring a team of people together around a shared mission.” There was no such person at Manual High School.

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1 WHY ARE YOU HERE?

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

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.

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20 IT NEVER STOPS AROUND HERE.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Michael Robinson let out a sigh and stared at the smart-aleck freshman standing before him. It was only 8:15 AM, but Robinson already knew this was going to be one of those days that seem to last forever. A special education teacher for more than a decade, he had recently been assigned to work in the discipline dean’s office as a backup to Terry Hoover. The office workload—the suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and preemptive strikes—had gotten to be too big for just one person. Robinson had long sought an opportunity to move into administration. On this day, he wondered why that had ever been a goal. In the first forty-five minutes of the school day, he’d already dealt with a handful of class-skipping students and a potential fight between two girls. And now he had to deal with the smart-aleck freshman, a boy named Rrien who had enrolled in Manual at the start of February and in the two weeks since had missed his fourth-period class nearly every day. He stood in Robinson’s office wearing a pair of tattered khakis, a red shirt, and a smirk.

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

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

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.

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3 CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

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.”

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