A year at an urban middle school: Not much cause for hope

Anyone interested in urban schools and education reform should read Robert King’s account of a year at Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis – not because it provides answers, but because it shows that answers won’t be easy.

Writing in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, King describes a school where students struggle every day against overwhelming odds, including extreme poverty, neglectful parents, violence, sexual abuse, mental illness and homelessness.

Part of the Indianapolis Public Schools system, Emma Donnan started the school year on an optimistic note: It had a new, energetic principal, Brian Burke, and two-thirds of the teachers were new. Then Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced that the school was being taken over by the state and would be run, starting in 2012-13, by Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

The news seemed to throw the school into a tailspin, with Burke possibly looking ahead to opening a new IPS magnet school and teachers worried about their jobs. “Whatever the reason, Emma Donnan went through a rough patch that lasted six months,” King writes.

Let’s hope that CPUSA turns Emma Donnan into a great school. But the Star story makes clear that this kind of “school turnaround,” even if eventually successful, isn’t without its costs. The transition year that King describes clearly wasn’t good for students. And now the head of CSUSA is low-balling expectations and blaming IPS, saying it will take four years to turn the school around. You have to wonder if students wouldn’t have been better off if the state had let IPS go forward with Burke and the teaching staff he had hired.

I had high hopes for this Star project, which follows King’s year-long series about kindergarten at IPS School No. 61 and columnist Matthew Tully’s year at Manual High School. But King writes that reporting on Emma Donnan was a challenge. He looked for examples of students who were beating the odds, but often “the child’s grades tanked, or the student transferred to another school or disappeared as part of a suspension or expulsion.” Kids agreed to let him visit their homes but gave fake addresses.

Tully’s book about his year at Manual is titled Searching for Hope. King, a generous and resourceful reporter and a very good writer, looked for hope but didn’t find much.

“Anyone who thinks they know something about urban education, who thinks there’s an easy remedy for fixing a broken city school, should spend some time in a place like Emma Donnan,” he concludes.

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