Keating: ‘Searching for Hope, Life at a Failing School’

January 23, 2018

Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America
Matthew Tully
Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012 (261 pages)

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis was founded in 1895 to provide training in such fields as mechanics, drafting, and the domestic arts. However, for most of its history, it has functioned as a traditional public high school. Shortly after this book was published, Manual was taken over by the State of Indiana and assigned to Charter Schools USA.

Matthew Tully’s Searching for Hope skillfully stirs up pleasant and not so pleasant memories of being young. However, the task Tully sets out for himself is to describes how a school can degrade to the point at which it ceases to function for most of its stakeholders… students, alumni, parents, staff, and taxpayers. Mr. Tully, a journalist, is the political columnist for the Indianapolis Star.

For this project, Tully was given almost complete access to Emmerich Manual during the 2009/2010 school year. Chapters are loosely based on columns published that year in the Indianapolis Star. The author makes a clear distinction between his work as a journalist, reporting factually, and as a commentator or author expressing personal opinions.

The author respects and describes the efforts and the significant contributions of certain students and staff; furthermore, he does not suggest that Manual is alone among inner-city high schools for educational dysfunction. Tully expresses regret on having published an overly negative description of a losing football game for which 17 out of 30 available players showed up. Tully paints a realistic picture of Manual and lets readers come to their own conclusions.

When the book was written, Manual was one of several high schools in Indiana threatened with a State takeover; it had a graduation rate of 39 percent and failing test scores for over 50% of its students. However, the principal and staff gave top priority to enrolling and retaining students. Potential students failing to enroll or inconsistently attending reduced Manual’s budget by approximately seventy-five hundred tax dollars. The ADM (average daily membership) date calculating enrollment is reached less than halfway through the Fall semester.

However, even many funded students did not attend regularly or failed to complete the semester. More than 10 percent did not return for the second semester. Early on, the author discovered that the school’s most vexing problem was a basic inability to get students to walk through the front doors.

A chapter, entitled “We’re Dropping Out” presents a parent’s seeming indifference to her two sons’ insistence on dropping out. In “I Hate This School” an angry parent ranges out of the school bad mouthing both his child and staff. In “We Do a Good Job with the Kids Who Show Up,” Tully drives around the neighborhood with the principal in a futile attempt to reach parents whose children are not attending.
The author, raised in Northwest Indiana, faced identical or similar challenges confronting students at Manual. The significance difference being that Tully’s mother would not entertain the thought of him not completing high school.

The reader is left wondering if the lack of trust in the educational process on the part of today’s parents, many in their mid-thirties, is due to genuine concern rather than self-interest, indifference, and negligence. A GED certificate and part-time positions in fast food may not be as short-sighted a decision as it first appears. Is it possible that some parents see these as minimizing their children’s exposure to fights, drugs, and wayward companions? Several days each week, Tully sat in the Dean’s office where problems crippling Manual were on clear display. Because so many students were in trouble with the law, the county probation department staffed an office in the building.

Two girls with grades well above average talked matter-of-factly with Tully about rough neighborhoods, middle school friends who had fallen into deep drug problems, and gun shots in the school courtyard during their sophomore year. Tully seems surprised at the girls’ general acceptance of these problems as being normal. The girls, however, did lament classmates now gone who were there last year or just a few days ago. “Where did everybody go?” asked one of the girls. “It’s like they’re losing hope.” another replied.

Schools do not function well without values. The single goal, consistently reiterated, was to attend class, do the assignments, and graduate in order to attend college or secure a good job. Is this sufficient to satisfy the deepest longings of teens? Tully gives three instances in which Manual staff were particularly effective.

Sargent John Barrow, patrolling the halls, diffusing conflict, and turning deadly serious when necessary, spent nearly every minute trying to build relationships with Manual’s students. In one chapter, Tully indicates how fortunate Manual students were to have this big tough ex-army guy with a gun at his side. Barrow expressed believed that most teens at Manual were like those found anywhere. However, he did not hesitate in plucking out trouble-makers so that other students could thrive in safety.

Another point of light, per Tully, was Linda Thatcher’s class for students with severe mental disabilities. In “There’s Nobody that Can’t Do Something” he describes his preferred model for all at-risk students. Using creative problem-solving strategies, skill building, and heavy attention to each student, Thatcher’s classroom was filled with conversation, laughter, and lessons in correct behavior.

Two other teachers dreamed of returning Manual into a school known for its top-notch music program. Together, they inspired students to reach for the stars, and, with some help from Tully’s readers, Christmas concert attendance exceeded capacity. In “It Feels Like I’m Somebody,” Choir Director Spencer Lloyd tells groaning students that no visible piercings, earrings excepted, were permitted and that being absence from class on show day forfeited the chance to being on stage that evening.

Tully, with a few exceptions, reserves serious criticisms for administrators and faculty teaching traditional academic classes. The enrollment process in “Why are you Here” would be comical if it were not so pathetic an example of the incompetence witnessed by students, many of whom were expected to perform on a higher level in part-time jobs.

In “Can You Believe This” a math teacher with decades of experience plows through the curriculum exuding boredom and cynicism. Four out of 18 students pay attention while the others sleep, talk, or text. Tully notes the irreversible harm resulting from an inadequate class in algebra, the gateway to higher-level math classes. He comments that younger and more energetic teachers face layoffs year after year due to the district’s union policies regarding seniority.

Searching for Hope explores the need for more vocational classes in presenting a case in which a student, off-track to graduate, nevertheless benefits from a class in welding. The book, however, does not address the long term value of good teaching in core subjects, such as science and foreign languages.

Teachers at Manual had minimal influence or none over school policy. Faculty were reduced to checking boxes in a credentialing process. To attract and retain individuals capable of developing deep-teaching classroom skills, consider two alternative solutions. One, principals with extended teaching experience, could select, reward, and evaluate instructors in direct classroom observations. Or, teachers could be allocated time to work together on common challenges and do peer mentoring. It would also help if students’ behavior and performance were somewhat tied to teachers’ job recommendations.

Although Tully explicitly states that there were few consequences for directing obscenities at a teacher, readers would be interested in his thoughts on root causes for the pervasive atmosphere of disrespect demonstrated by students, parents, and, sorry to say, teachers and staff (96).

In reading this book, those interested in K-12 education will learn what is not working. It also offers a realistic glimpse into the profession for those anticipating a career in education. The major contribution of Searching for Hope is showing that, unless drastic measures are taken to restore the value of secondary education for struggling students, the situation is indeed hopeless.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell. 


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