I taught at Manual for three years. The CSUSA takeover schools deserve better.
By Sarah TeKolste
During my three years as a teacher at Emmerich Manual High School under Charter Schools USA, I worked alongside devoted, talented educators who went above and beyond for their students. With my colleagues, I celebrated the growth in our turnaround environment: campus monitors kept the halls peaceful and safe, teachers taught bell-to-bell, and test scores and graduation rates demonstrated progress. When, in the fall of 2017, Manual came off the failing schools list, it was proof for me that we were on the right track as educators who cared deeply about our community.
Though I was proud of the successes Manual experienced, I also saw that we had a long way to go in order to give our community the excellent school it truly deserved. A recent Chalkbeat investigation revealed that Manual misrepresented its graduation data by grossly over-reporting the number of students who withdrew to homeschool. As a teacher, I saw firsthand that Charter Schools USA was not doing enough to ensure that our students’ potential was realized. Consistently in my time at Manual, students told me that our school had not really prepared them for their future, and that the lack of academic accountability had set them up for failure in college or in their careers. I also experienced — and later became a part of — the systematic teacher turnover that left our students in classrooms without licensed teachers or with teachers who would not stay, not even for the duration of one semester. I left in part because of CSUSA’s poor human resources and benefits, to say nothing of having to regularly spend out of my own pocket for educational necessities, like school supplies and buses for field trips. The results of the school’s inability to retain qualified teachers were disastrous for students who were already academically behind.
Perhaps the saddest part about Manual’s failure in our community is that CSUSA seems to have wasted a real opportunity to improve the school after IPS ceded control. In 2010, Indianapolis Star reporter Matthew Tully wrote of the CSUSA takeover: “I can only hope it works. The hard-hit neighborhood surrounding Manual desperately needs a good school.” Nine years later, history repeats itself and our community is in jeopardy again. Our students deserved better then. They deserve better now.
The future of Manual, Howe, and Donnan now rests in the hands of the Indiana Charter School Board, which will vote on Friday to determine whether it will grant charters to CSUSA for the operation of the schools by CSUSA’s subcontractor, Noble Education Initiative (NEI). Meanwhile, IPS has also announced its plans to partner with local charter organization Christel House Indianapolis should Manual return to district control. This uncertainty is traumatic for students and teachers, as it perpetuates the instability they already experience in so many ways in their neighborhoods. Regardless of the outcome on Friday, I hope that the future leadership of Manual will do a better job than the years of untapped potential the school has faced under both IPS and CSUSA; our community deserves school leadership that will ground itself in academic excellence and integrity, the recruitment and retention of talented teachers, and responsiveness to the needs of the diverse community it serves.
Regardless of who will operate Manual in years to come, incoming school leadership should work diligently to communicate their plans with the community and attempt to retain as many of the current effective teachers on staff as possible. District leaders must ensure that the school’s transition from state takeover is performed thoughtfully, with transparency and constant input from all community stakeholders, especially students, families, and teachers. We must ask more of the leaders who have the fate of Manual, Donnan, and Howe in their hands.
Sarah TeKolste teaches International Baccalaureate Spanish at Shortridge High School. She is a Teach Plus Indianapolis Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.