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Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of Americaby Matthew Tully
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
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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"[A]n even-more-compelling version of the saga Tully chronicled in his Manual Project." —Indianapolis Monthly
"A gritty, wonderfully honest investigation of life in an urban American high school in the 21st century. The despair, the apathy, the misplaced anger, the frustrations and fights for something better are all there. The school in Indianapolis where Tully spent so much time is close to what I have found in many big cities, but few reporters have gone as deep as Tully has." —Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist and author of Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America
"Every reform-minded educator, parent, and politician should read this book. It will change the way they think about what's really needed to help every student in a struggling school achieve his or her full potential." —Gerardo M. González, Dean, School of Education, Indiana University Bloomington
"With a great mix of storytelling and analysis, Matthew Tully puts a human face on the statistics we’re bombarded with about the decline of education in our cities. In equal parts brutally honest and surprisingly uplifting, Searching for Hope... is required reading for anyone attempting to understand or address the problems of urban education in the United States." —Jonathan Plucker, Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University Bloomington
"A gritty, wonderfully honest investigation of life in an urban American high school in the 21st century. The despair, the apathy, the misplaced anger, the frustrations and fights for something better are all there. The school in Indianapolis where Tully spent so much time is close to what I have found in many big cities, but few reporters have gone as deep as Tully has." Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist and author of Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America
- Indiana University Press
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Read an Excerpt
Searching for Hope
Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America
By Matthew Tully
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Matthew Tully
All rights reserved.
WHY ARE YOU HERE?
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.
Manual High School was once the gem of the near south side; it was a school known for its sports programs, its curriculum, and the city and civic leaders it produced. Four decades ago it was the dream destination of many young education students eager to launch a teaching career. Four decades ago families were proud to send their children to Manual. That was a long time ago.
On this morning Manual was beginning another academic year with its reputation firmly in place as one of the state's worst-performing schools. There were few signs to suggest a turnaround would be coming, even though the state was finally beginning to demand one. Manual's failures were so entrenched and profound that it was one of twenty-three Indiana schools the state was threatening to take over. Like many once-stellar city schools from coast to coast, Manual's glory was found largely in its distant past.
By a bit after seven o'clock the parking lot was filling with cars and buses, and students who lived nearby were wandering onto the grounds from different directions. A few students stood on a median in the middle of Madison Avenue, waiting to cross the sometimes-busy street that runs in front of the school. They were easy to spot in their mandated uniforms of khaki or black slacks and red, white, or black shirts. The students laughed and talked with one another, and as I approached the school I wondered how teenagers from one of the city's most poverty-ridden areas would react to a balding, reserved thirty-nine-year-old journalist bugging them for information about their school, their lives, their dreams, their futures, and their struggles. It would be a challenge. But I had spent a career bugging people for information, and I'd been in tougher locales than this, so I wasn't too worried.
The entryway just beyond Manual's front doors was quiet when I walked in. I didn't see anyone in the hallways that ran to my left and right. The library in front of me was empty. The main office was still. Where was everyone? "You look lost," a husky voice declared. I turned and saw Jill Haughawout, one of Manual's veteran teachers. Tall, blonde, and loud, she asked me if I needed help. I said I did and asked why the school was so quiet. "It's never quiet here," she said. "The noise is just somewhere else. The action's in the gym today. Follow me." I did as ordered, making small talk with Haughawout as the heels she later told me she rarely wore clicked on the school's hard floors. She said the students were in the gym getting their schedules and other paperwork.
Haughawout led me into the belly of the school, past classrooms, the nurse's office, a county health department office, and the athletic department. I noticed how empty the walls were, with the exception of the occasional flyer seeking players for the football team. Many of the glass-enclosed trophy cases throughout the school were empty. Nothing on the walls announced or celebrated the new school year.
Haughawout's heels continued to click, echoing through the otherwise quiet halls. "So you're a reporter?" she asked.
"A columnist," I said, offering unnecessary clarification.
"And why are you here?"
That was a question I would hear over and over during the school year. From skeptical teachers. From students. From the janitors, cops, and secretaries. Schools like Manual typically live in obscurity, and nobody at the school seemed to understand why anyone would care about its inner workings. I could appreciate their concern. Most people don't come to work or school and find a journalist prowling the halls, standing to the side taking notes, asking pesky questions, and treating occasions they considered perfectly mundane as newsworthy.
I told Haughawout I wanted to learn more about education at the ground level, about the causes of the low graduation rate and test scores that plague so many American schools. I said I picked Manual because I'd heard it wasn't as chaotic as some other local schools and that it had exhibited signs of hope. I thought it would provide more complex column material than the many other schools in town that were known for their Wild West ways. Then I asked her how she felt about the new school year.
She smiled, looked at me as if I were an idiot, and sighed. "Actually, I'm a little nervous," she said. "This is my sixteenth year. I don't know why I'm nervous. But I am. I had trouble sleeping last night."
I asked if that was typical. It wasn't. There was something unique about this nervousness. There was something about this upcoming school year that was nagging at her. It was a nervousness she felt but couldn't explain. In reality, though, there was plenty to be nervous about.
The state had zeroed in on Manual, and there were many questions about the future of its staff and administration. There was also the nervous stomachache that must come, I thought, from knowing that so many of the students a school is supposed to educate will fall by the wayside, giving up on their education and any real chance at opportunity. Then there were the massive daily challenges and hassles teachers such as Haughawout face each time they step in front of a classroom full of students at schools like Manual.
We kept walking. Manual is a big building. Built in the mid-1950s for more than 2,000 students, enrollment has declined dramatically along with the surrounding neighborhood's population and economic fortunes. The school would claim about 950 students this year. Even that number, though, was inflated by a district that was desperate for funding.
"Well, here you are," Haughawout said as we arrived at the doors to the Manual gymnasium. I took a deep breath and wished myself luck as we walked in.
Opening the doors to the gym reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy walks out of her black-and-white farmhouse and into the colorful Land of Oz. The silent hallway gave way to a loud roar of voices. Dozens of students milled about. More sat on the gym bleachers. Students gathered, hugging and catching up. I stopped by the doors and watched it all.
Before I had much time to take in the scene, however, Haughawout led me across the busy gym floor and introduced me to Richard "Rocky" Grismore, the school's perpetually overwhelmed fifty-six-year-old principal. Wearing a shirt and tie, a black mustache, and glasses, Grismore stood handing out class schedules and quickly shot down my attempt at small talk. He was far too busy for that and instead asked me in his gravelly voice to help him hand out cards. But before I had a chance to do so, another teacher showed up and took her place alongside Grismore. So I pulled out my notebook.
As Grismore worked, offering friendly greetings to the students, I asked why he was dealing with registration issues on the first day of school. "It's the parents," he said. The school had offered three days of preregistration a week earlier, but only about a quarter of the expected student population had come out for that. "That's a sign," Grismore said, "of how hard it is to get parents involved around here." Even on this day he expected only about three-quarters of his students to show. It happens every year when the district kicks off its school year in mid-August.
"We have a lot of people here on the south side who don't believe school should start until after Labor Day," he said. "So they just don't send their kids here for the first two or three weeks."
"What?" I asked. "Some parents think they get to decide when the school year begins? Can't you do something about that?"
For the second time that day, I received a look that made clear I didn't know anything about Manual High School. Grismore's eyes peered over his glasses, his lips pursed as he seemed to ponder just how big an idiot I was. Instead, he told me I was welcome to spend as much time as I wanted at his school. It was an offer he would regret more than once during the school year, but he never rescinded it.
While Grismore returned to his duties, I leaned against the wall and took in the students. Unlike at many big-city public schools, a majority of Manual's students, roughly two-thirds, were white. About a quarter were black. And the rest came from Indianapolis' growing Hispanic community. For the most part, white students mingled with other white students. Black kids talked with other black kids. And the Hispanic students in particular huddled together.
Their voices, along with those of teachers and other school employees, contributed at first to a loud collective hum. But it didn't take long for one voice to emerge above the rest. It came from Larry Whiteman, a veteran teacher who stood in the middle of the gym floor with a tired frown on his face. He spoke into a microphone, though with his deep voice and gruff demeanor, he didn't need one. "Tuck in your shirts," he told one student after another. "Pull up your pants. Come on, pull 'em up. People, let's do this right. Tuck in those shirts. Pull up those pants."
With his left hand tucked into the pocket of his tan pants, Whiteman scoured the room and spotted a student who appeared to be in violation of every one of the rules in the district's dress code. "Young man," Whiteman said in his monotone way, "pull up your pants, tighten your belt, take your hat off, and tuck in your shirt. Other than that, you're doing a pretty good job."
The student halfheartedly began to tuck in his long black shirt as he walked away. Whiteman shook his head, a head that featured a ring of white hair around a bald top. He barely moved his tall, heavy body from its spot in the middle of the floor as he scanned the room looking for students to scold. They were everywhere. The dress code was now in its third year. But many students continued to struggle with the concept of rules. Many came from homes with few rules, after all, a disconnect that caused a never-ending tug and pull between the student population and the school's adults.
Whiteman continued to bark orders, looking and sounding as if he were impersonating Gen. George S. Patton—or at least George C. Scott's impersonation of him. "Tuck in your shirt," he barked into the microphone.
I walked over and introduced myself. Whiteman didn't seem impressed. Still, he talked. He told me he'd been at Manual for twenty years and was now in charge of running the thriving in-school-suspension program. He assured me there was plenty to write about but demanded I tell my readers what was really going on in the school rather than writing puff pieces and simply carrying water for the district. He said he'd rarely seen stories that accurately portrayed life in a school like his.
"Pull up your pants," he told a student.
"So," I asked, "what's Manual like?"
And for the third time that morning, I received a look that suggested I was an idiot. Nonetheless, the question produced an answer. "It's like triage here," he said. "That's what people need to know. Some of these students are going to die." He was talking about an academic death, mind you. "Some you can save. But some you can't. I think we spend too much time with the ones who are dying and not enough time with the kids in the middle that we can save."
I had been at the school for only a few minutes. But I was already hearing a teacher argue that some of the kids in desperate need of an education should be abandoned. If that's what the teachers are saying, I thought, what chance do these kids have?
Whiteman spotted a kid in need of a scolding, and I said good-bye. I would have many more conversations with him throughout the year, conversations that would make clear he was just as frustrated and burned out but not nearly as coldhearted as he sounded that morning.
As he got back to work, I stood in the gym observing and for a while simply watched a scene that was comically inept, a process so inefficiently organized that only a government entity could have designed it. For instance, each student had to stand in separate long lines—one for a schedule and one for a lunch voucher and textbook voucher—rather than one combined line. I wondered if I was the only one puzzled by the lines for class schedules, which were based on the first letter of each student's last name. Lines with popular letters had more than thirty students. Others at times had none. But the teachers at the head of the empty lines sat bored rather than help colleagues who faced a backlog of students. This was just the start of the confusion. For more than a week after opening day, students would wander to the office to get conflicts and mistakes in their schedules corrected, missing class after class as they waited for help. For all the inherent problems facing schools like Manual, I would notice many times throughout the year that any solutions were hampered by a mind-boggling inability to put efficient processes in place. The lost class time for students was staggering.
The students, not surprisingly, didn't seem to mind. They laughed and relaxed that morning. And as eight o'clock arrived, I headed their way, into the mass of teenagers, hoping to get to know a few of them.
Three senior girls sat on the wooden gym bleachers. They whispered to one another and shot blank stares my way when I sat down next to them. They looked tough, like many of the students at Manual. But once we began to talk, they began to smile. They all laughed when I asked whether they were looking forward to graduation. "We hope to graduate," they said, before quickly warning me that a diploma at the end of the school year wasn't guaranteed, because they had fallen behind in past years. One of the girls, Rachel Tucker, told me about her job at Burger King and her hope—a very common one, I would discover—to be a veterinarian. That was just a dream, she said, that at seventeen she had already begun to abandon. She said she couldn't afford to go to Purdue, home to the state's only veterinary school, and her grades weren't good enough anyway. Maybe she would attend one of the local for-profit trade schools and eventually get a job as a veterinarian's assistant. At least she'd be able to work with animals.
At a table nearby, school staffers handed out book rental bills. Most of the students came from low-income families and received vouchers to cover most or all of their fees. "John, did you have free book rental last year?" a bookkeeper asked one student, trying to figure out if he was eligible.
"I think so," he said, looking confused. "I don't know."
"Well, how about lunch? Did you have free lunch?"
"Yeah, I did."
He received a form to take home to his mother. I noticed that staffers who gave students forms and applications to take home always told the students to have their mothers sign them. It was reflexive. They had learned not to assume the presence of a father.
Chelsea McKinney was next in line. The sixteen-year-old stood on the wooden gym floor with her right hand on her side. She wore black pants and a white polo shirt over her pregnant frame. When I said hello, she flashed a slight but sweet smile. Her due date was seventeen days away. But she wanted to stay in school as long as possible—unlike the hundreds of other students who hadn't shown up that day. "My mom and dad just want me to finish school and graduate," she said. "I don't have to get a job and move out or anything like that. I'm lucky."
Chelsea told me she wanted to be a social worker one day. Along with veterinarian and CSI technician, that was the most common career path girls at the school mentioned. I understood why they wanted to be vets and crime scene investigators. One dealt with pets, and the other had been glamorized by television. But social worker?
Excerpted from Searching for Hope by Matthew Tully. Copyright © 2012 Matthew Tully. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Matthew Tully is the political columnist for the Indianapolis Star. His columns on public schools have helped drive debate over education reform in Indiana. Tully’s commentary has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Education Week, and he has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and numerous other national media outlets. He was named Indiana Journalist of the Year in 2008 and won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2010.
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