The idea popped into his head, Matthew Tully says, two days before Indianapolis Public Schools opened the 2009-10 school year.
“I sent an e-mail to the school district, and all I said was, ‘Hey, do you mind if I spend some time at Manual High School?’” he recalls in an interview with StateImpact.
He thought he’d spend maybe a few weeks there.
Instead, Tully spent a full year at Manual — a school that two years later the state would label as failing — documenting what he characterizes as urban education’s pervasive problems of poverty, “apathy,” and absenteeism in roughly 40 columns in the Star and in a recently-released book.
His writings raise broader questions, especially as the community digests the sweeping changes outlined in the “The Mind Trust proposal.” The plan advocates for mayoral control of IPS, more power for building-level principals, and a reduced role for district administration. Tully has praised some of the ideas in the group’s manifesto, although he’s withheld a full endorsement of the proposal.
Tully’s book is provocative not only for its heartbreaking, eye-opening intimacy, but because he speaks simultaneously to The Mind Trust plan’s strengths and weaknesses.
StateImpact sat down with Tully to ask him about what he learned after a year in an inner-city high school:
Q: I have to ask you about three characters in the book. Two of them are the girls that you open the book with. They get to the heart of what you call your need to find characters, the need to put a face to education policy, and you find those in the girls at the very beginning.
A: I think it was at the end of the third week. I had written two columns at that point, and they’d been pretty hard-hitting columns. The first two or three days I was there, I saw kids getting arrested. I saw kids getting busted for having sex in the gym locker room. I saw just the horrible absenteeism problem. In class after class, only half the kids were showing up in the first weeks of the year. Parents weren’t engaged. I found teachers — and there are some great teachers there — but I found teachers who weren’t lifting a finger to teach their classes. I wrote a couple columns that were pretty tough about what I saw, and I knew I had to go in their and not candy-coat things — that I had to show people what was really going on.
But at the end of that third week, I was standing on the back steps of Manual… And I noticed these two young women standing about ten feet from me, and one who I later learned was Kelly, was behind Alyson, was standing behind her and kinda pushing her toward me and saying, “Go talk to him, go talk to him.”
—Matthew Tully, Indianapolis Star columnist
Kelly came up to me and she’s a really kinda bold — I always say I’m going to walk into a voting booth and vote for her for senator or something. She got right in my face and asked, “Are you going to write about the kids that are doing the right thing at Manual?”
And it really punched me in the gut, because it told me a number of things: One, there are kids that really take their education seriously at this school and see what I was doing — putting columns on the front page of the paper — as something that could really affect them. They think if their school is seen a certain way, that could really affect them. Two, I had to make sure that I was really getting to the heart of what was going on in that school. Sure, as I told them, I’ve got to write about the bad things, because you guys deserve a better school than this. That said, in the end, the true heart of a school are the kids who are doing the right thing, and the teachers that are doing the right thing, and the people that are working to overcome huge obstacles that are standing in their path.
Everything that happened in this series was due to them. I still wrote those tough columns. But it really made me look at the other side. The columns that I still hear about two years later are the ones that are the teachers that are doing the right thing or the students that are doing the right thing or the community coming out and responding to those folks.
Q: The other character I have to ask you about — because it gets to some of the broader issues — is then-Manual principal Rocky Gismore. You seem to not know where to put him. To you, the way that you write about him, he seems to represent a lot of what’s well-intentioned but wrong. Tell me about how you wrestle with him, and how did you figure out how to tell a balanced story about him?
A: Rocky is the principal there, or he had been for about five or six years when I had first gotten there. That was the hardest part of the book because I really like Rocky Grismore. And he worked harder than anyone in the building. He was the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave, and then he’d go to the district headquarters to have more meetings, and he worked really hard and I know over the years that he helped a lot of kids and he truly cared about kids, especially kids with special needs. That was his focus when he was a teacher.
But as a journalist, I had to step back and talk about what I was really seeing. After 35 years in the district, I think he had become a product of the district. So many days I think his goal was to make sure the trains were running on time and that he was able to keep the district bosses off his back. I have huge problems with how the district was run, and the hassles they put in front of their principals and vice principals and make it hard for him to succeed.
I think Manual needed a principal who came in every day and said, “Listen, my focus is these kids and I’m telling the district to shove it if they’re trying to get in the way, and I’m going to push and push and push for high expectations,” and I just didn’t see that. I saw a lot of apathy and low expecations.
When I got there, they had a 39 percent graduation rate. And I told a story in the book about how I walked into his office one day and he said, “I have good news,” and I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Our graduation rate was actually higher than 39 percent.” Oh, what was it? “40.” It wasn’t because they found another kid that graduated, it was because they had found a couple kids to take out of the list because they transferred to other schools so the pool of kids — not one more kid had graduated.
I remember thinking at the time, how can a principal be anything other than devastated by a 40 percent graduation rate? It doesn’t mean Rocky’s a bad guy. It doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done more for kids than I’ll ever do. It just means that I think by that point in his career, he’d become swallowed up by the district bureaucracy and style that just gets in the way of excellence.
Q: Mr. Grismore sort of gets to that disconnect between the Mind Trust proposal, which puts so much faith in building principals and so much faith in local control as opposed to district control — and I know that you’ve said the Mind Trust is a workable plan — how do you square that with Rocky Grismore and what he represents?
A: I find the Mind Trust report very intriguing and very provocative and needs to be the basis of a long conversation in Indianapolis about how we run our schools. The only way it works though is if you have talented leaders in all of those schools. You can give all the autonomy you want to that school, but if you don’t have the right teachers, the right principals, they’re not going to succeed.
—Matthew Tully, Indianapolis Star columnist
I honestly believe that if Rocky was unshackled from the district— So many days I walked in and he was just filling out a report to please some district boss that had some bug about something. Rocky had to spend half his day answering to them, instead of doing what he should’ve been doing, which is dealing with what was going on in his schools. I really think if he didn’t have all the district craziness that he could run a school in a different way.
I remember one time he and I went out supposedly for kids that hadn’t shown up. In the end, I thought we were going to spend all day, because so many kids hadn’t shown up for school, looking for kids. We went to three houses. And I think in my mind, it became pretty clear based on what I hear from teachers and such that that was a PR move, that he had a columnist on the premises, and why not take him out, and act like that’s what they do. Well, that’s not what they do, they did it that one day for me.
But I remember that one of the times that I realized how much I liked him. He just started talking about his dream that he win the lottery and that he’d be able to buy a building and start his own school, free of the district. He knows in his heart of hearts that the dstirct is just making it hard for these principals to do what they need. That said, I can point you to schools in Indianapolis where the principals have said, “No, we’re not going to play these games,” and is willing to fight the district a little harder. And if they have the results, they’re often able to do what they want to do because they have the results to show for it. There are principals who don’t get caught up in the system as much.
Q: If you had to say to people, what is the thing you have wrong about the city’s schools in Indianapolis? What is that thing that you take away from your columns and your reporting that people don’t get?
A: It’s often a very unsatisfying answer for people, because I tell them there’s not an easy answer. There’s not a law that we can pass, there’s not a policy that we can put in place, there’s not an amount of money we can spend that’s going to fix all these problems.
It’s hard, hard work. Yeah, you need the right laws in place, the right resources in place, you need to make sure the money is going to the schools and not being tied up in the district. You need to make sure that teachers are being held accountable, and that great teachers are being rewarded.
It goes beyond that: You have to have a sense of energy in these buildings, and the word that always popped into my head [at Manual] was “apathy,” because I saw it over and over and over — in the offices, in the classroom, in the hallways — the looks on the faces and expectations that were there. I’d always walk around thinking if they could just instill a spirit of energy in there, they could pull more kids in, the teachers would get behind it, because they’ve seen it in other schools, so I guess the greatest misconception is that there’s an easy answer.
Also, I think there’s a horrible misconception that these kids can’t be brilliant, and can’t succeed at the highest level. These are smart kids. They have such potential, and so often that potential goes untapped. And that’s heartbreaking, so I think we have to believe that these kids can succeed at the highest level, and these schools can be turned around, it’s just going to take a lot of hard work…
Q: What are lessons that we shouldn’t learn from Manual? Part of the problem I think some people see is that we’re legislating current education policy to the lowest-performing schools. We’re saying the ones that are high-performing can’t get credit for being pretty good schools, we have to make sure by giving them huge, very stressful regimens of testing and test prep, and everything that comes with it — and that’s really designed to affect the lowest 25 percent, as opposed to the schools that are probably doing okay. What do we learn from Manual High School — a lesson about crafting good education policy — when there are a lot of schools that are doing okay?
A: You can’t have one size fits all. I support testing in smart ways. I think it’s important to gauge how students are doing. That’s important, especially if the data that is taken from that is used to improve what happens in that school. But I think that people need to buy more into the idea that each school is different, the culture in each school and each neighborhood is different, and the people in building should — they should, otherwise they shouldn’t be there — know what’s best for their kids, whether it’s curriculum, whether it’s the school hours, whether it’s dress codes, whether it’s all kinds of things. They should know what’s best for their school, so I do worry about these kinds of one-size-fits-all things.
So often we over-correct. It becomes all testing — and right now, there’s such a backlash, I fear that ten years from now we’ll have no testing. It’s complicated, and it’s constantly evolving, and that’s why you just have to have the right leaders in these schools, so they can decide what fits. I tell people, “I’m a trained observer, I’m not an education expert, I just like to spend a lot of time in schools and learn as much as I can.” The people in the schools are the experts. They should be given more autonomy, but also more responsibility. They should run the school as they see best for their kids, but we should hold them responsible for what happens
Tully’s answers were lightly edited for easy readability.