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Manual teacher's mission is for parents to learn alongside their kids

Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.
Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Manual High School math teacher Robin Clark was tired of waiting around for legislators and policymakers to curtail Indiana’s number of high school dropouts.

So last spring, she took action in the simplest way she knew how: Clark invited parents to her classroom to learn Algebra alongside their kids.

Now the program has expanded to include three other teachers, $2,000 in donations, babysitting and transportation services and classes in English, math, business and English as a new language. The goal is for parents to eventually learn enough to pass a high school equivalency exam.

“I’m just trying to do my part while I’m still able to make a change,” Clark said. “It just seems like a great fix because nothing concrete is being done. People talk. Everybody is always talking.”

Scott Bess, who leads the work of Indiana’s Goodwill Education Initiatives, a group that runs Indy Metropolitan High School and the state’s nine Excel Centers for adult learners, said between 15,000 and 20,000 kids each year leave high school without a diploma. That means about 600,000 Hoosiers age 20 and older haven’t earned the credential.

Numbers like these were staggering to Clark, who’s been working for years to see this program take off.

The biggest challenge so far is getting parents who’ve already expressed interest to take the big step of showing up in class — but Clark said she and her team don’t mind the extra work to make them feel comfortable. She knows some have had negative experiences with school in the past.

More than once she and the other teachers have stayed after school calling numbers on a list of almost 40 people, some of whom are illiterate, who want to learn.

Three other teachers are already on board to help teach parents: Jess Osborne, an English as a new language teacher, Derrick Dennis a business teacher and Ashley Coulter, an English teacher.

It’s a work-in-progress, but for Coulter, it’s especially meaningful work because it offers a glimpse into the lives of her own parents, who didn’t finish high school. She imagines they also might have been too embarrassed to get help in a class like the one Clark is offering.

“They wouldn’t have wanted to be the only ones,” Coulter said. “Now it’s becoming something lots of people are doing, and I think maybe they would’ve, right? And then who knows what would’ve happened?”

With community support, an idea grows at Manual

Clark got the idea to have parents learn with their kids long before she started at Manual. The school was formerly part of IPS but now is run by Florida-based Charter Schools USA after being taken over by the state for low test scores. Clark’s been kicking around the idea of teaching parents for almost 15 years, ever since she got to Indianapolis.

She took small steps first: inviting parents to tutoring lessons she gave. She quickly noticed the parents of those kids were not as involved or educated as the parents of the students she taught at Hasten Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school on the city’s north side. These parents needed help so they could help their own kids, she said, and many had not graduated from high school.

After teaching awhile at Manual, Clark informally polled her students: Who had parents without a high school diploma?

About 80 percent of her kids said theirs didn’t. The idea crept back for a more ambitious way to help those parents help her students.

Clark said there’s no reason for anybody — single parent or otherwise — to be afraid to get help and complete their education.

“My sense is that so many of these people have had bad experiences in school, and there’s a stigma attached to having dropped out,” Clark said. “So I could care less what’s happened to you before. Every day is a new day. I’ll explain something 100 times 100 different ways. As long as you want to learn, we’re going to make it happen.”

If the parents can learn English and gain confidence within the school system, they might also be more comfortable advocating on behalf of their children, said Osborne, who teaches English-learners.

And the kids don’t seem to mind, Osborne said. A couple seemed unnerved by having their parents around, but most thought it was a good move, and were with their parents when they signed up.

“I think for my students, that their parents only speak Spanish, I think it will be a really great opportunity to even practice English with them,” Osborne said. “(Kids) are having to do a lot of the work, and I think a lot of that was hope that their parents will be able to do a little more for themselves and won’t have to rely on them so much.”

Dennis said he’s most excited to help parents gain a better understanding of personal finance, and to tailor his help to whatever they might need — whether that’s working on a resume, paying bills or starting a business. Essentially, it’s whatever they want to learn, whenever they want to learn it.

Clark’s class already focuses on financial literacy and personal finance, an area where many adults might need help, she said. And Clark doesn’t expect any extra payment or special accommodations or supplies. She has notebooks and pencils, and she teaches her classes just as she would otherwise, whether parents are there or not.

“Whether I’m talking to five people or 35 people, it’s the same,” Clark said. “There’s no fee for that, so what is so prohibitive?”

Teachers make progress despite slow start

So far, just one more parent has shown up for class, Clark said. Despite the slow start, she’s not discouraged.

She has forged relationships with Indy Reads and staff from Christel House’s Dropout Recovery School, which helps adult students come back to school and attain a diploma, rather than a GED.

Christel House DORS is based out of Ivy Tech, with satellite campuses at the other Christel House academies on the South and West sides of the city. Many students who go through the program graduate with not only a high school diploma, but dual college credit from Ivy tech so they can continue onto college or technical training programs if they choose.

“Students range from 18 to 54 and come from all walks of life,” said Emily Masengale, the school’s director. “I have worked in urban education and alternative education, and I think the most resiliency is in these students at DORS because they are adults, and it’s really humbling because it takes a lot to come back to school.”

Masengale and Clark have just begun to explore how they might work together. It could involve helping parents earn diplomas and connect with DORS, rather than just getting an equivalency — Indiana law says high schools cannot enroll students older than 21.

For Masengale helping Manual, in particular, matters to her.

“My parents are high school sweethearts and met there,” she said. “I did my student teaching there, and I know they’ve been through a lot of transition.”

When she heard Clark speak at a WFYI Public Media event about the country’s dropout rate, Masengale knew she wanted to get involved.

“I heard her speak and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy because they are on our radar. We want to reach out to parents,’” Masengale said. “It just seems like a match made in heaven.”

For now, Clark is focused on welcoming the parents to Manual, whether or not they decide to ultimately pursue the equivalency exam or higher education.

No child can be prevented from attending a public school, whether or not they are in the country legally. However, unless a person is a legal Indiana resident with proof of identification, they can’t take the high school equivalency exam. At a school like Manual, it’s possible that some parents who would be interested might not be legal residents.

The exam comes with an up to $90 fee and strict eligibility requirements, but Clark said she’s willing to help eligible parents take the test and get there any way she can.

“We’re doing it,” Clark said. “And we’ll work it all out somehow. If nothing else, they’ll learn to read and write and add two numbers together, and that’ll still put them ahead.”

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