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Posted at 02:02 PM ET, 02/28/2012

Fixing schools with brawn and brains

About this blog: Manual High School in a rough
Indianapolis neighborhood isn’t much different from other troubled urban schools. Its story speaks to the heartache and promise of high schools throughout America. So when journalist Matthew Tully spent time in the hallways, classrooms and offices thoughout an entire school year, he discovered first-hand what ails our schools. His book, “Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America,”out this month from Indiana University Press, gives us an on-the-ground portrait of the frustrations and dreams inside the school walls. Here, he offers a fresh look at how to solve our education woes.

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I receive the same two questions every time I stand before an audience to talk about the year I spent chronicling one of the worst-performing schools in the state of Indiana.

“What’s the solution?” and “What did you learn?”

The solution, I argue, can be found in the failing schools themselves. Despite all of the problems I found during my year at Manual High, there were pockets of excellence that can serve as a guide. Such as:

* The 25-year-old choir teacher who worked so hard to engage his students that he was often sweating at the end of his classes. By his second year at the school, the choir program had more than tripled in size and previously at-risk students were working harder than ever.

* The Army veteran turned school police officer who spent every day trying to build relationships with students, aware that many needed a mentor and that the relationships he forged today would pay off in times of crisis later.

* The special-needs teacher who was nearing retirement age but just couldn’t imagine walking away from a group of students who suffered from the most profound learning disabilities. Her students wouldn’t go to college, but she knew that if she worked hard enough some would ultimately be able to live semi-independently.

When people ask me for a quick-hit solution to America’s education problems, I instead share the words of Earl Martin Phalen, who runs a program in Indiana that seeks to prevent low-income students from suffering a summer learning loss. Two years ago, a schools superintendent introduced Phalen at a news conference as: “The brains behind the operation.”

“Hmm,” Phalen said, “I’ve always thought of myself as the brawn.”

That perfectly summed up the challenges facing hard-hit schools. Yes, we need the right laws, policies and resources. But in the end, as unsatisfying as this is to some, the solution is more brawn than brains. It’s more hard work than policy.

And what did I learn? Well, plenty:

* There are few things more inspiring than a great teacher at work. They command their rooms. They convince students to work harder and think deeper. And over the course of a semester or a year, they have an undeniable impact.

* The expectations in some schools are depressingly low. I learned this frequently, including once when Manual’s principal shared his excitement upon learning that the school’s 39 percent graduation rate was actually 40 percent.

* Many students in struggling schools have boulders standing in their paths — something, that is, blocking them from success. These students need someone to notice the problem and step in. Too often, that does not happen.

* Perhaps most important, schools must have dynamic leaders that can instill a culture of high energy into their buildings. They must be given autonomy to address the specific issues facing their students. Without a memorable and demanding leader, schools like Manual have no chance.

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Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston

By Matthew Tully  |  02:02 PM ET, 02/28/2012

 
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