NOTIONS: Throwing out the book on 'remedial' education

January 9, 2006

On the first day of school, eighth-grade history teacher George Barnes took aim at tradition. With all the arm strength of the former Butler University football player he is, Barnes heaved a history text across his classroom. The book flew past his students' stunned faces and crashed against the wall. Barnes asked the shocked teens: "If you were recording for history what you just witnessed, what would you say?"

"Some," said Barnes, "said, 'That Mr. Barnes, he's a crazy man. He's insane. We'd better worry about our lives.'" "Others," he said, "suggested I must have been aiming for so-and-so's head, because she was talking in class." "Then I told them that if I were writing that history, I'd say, 'Oh, my hand slipped.' And if that's the only history they ever read, the 'truth' would be that my hand slipped." Then, Barnes explained to his students why he threw the book. He wanted to get their attention. He wanted to demonstrate that he doesn't teach from a text. And he wanted his students to learn, via their own reporting, why: Because history is a matter of perspective. And different people have different perspectives. So instead of any single text, Barnes uses myriad books, Web sites, papers, speeches and other sources.

"History is not an exact science," Barnes said. "Yet too often, we believe what we learn in history is gospel, definite fact, the way it is."

The same might be said for education. It's not, after all, an exact science. And what many of us have been taught about what works best is not gospel, definite fact or the way it must be.

The Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, where Barnes tosses texts, break dances in the hallways and whatever else it takes to get students' attention, is one buckthe-stereotype example.

How is Tindley different?

First, there's that word "accelerated," a moniker generally reserved for pricey private prep schools with plush suburban campuses and admissions officers who cherrypick from the "best," brightest and best-funded.

Tindley, however, is a public school-one of a dozen or so charter schools in Indianapolis.

Launched in 2004 for middle- and highschool students, Tindley operates in a corporate-looking, retrofitted grocery store in a tough north-side neighborhood. It selects, by blind draw, from some of the most economically and educationally disadvantaged students in our community.

Which leads to a second point of difference: Instead of using poverty and past educational failings as an excuse for poor performance, Tindley, said Principal Marcus Robinson, is "sending a message that we can help kids succeed despite their background if the right people apply the right programs and invest the time."

"We don't do a lot of sympathy," said Robinson, who grew up in poverty himself. "Sure, we're aware of economic and social context, but we teach kids to cope and be self-elevating. We teach them to use college as a means of changing their circumstances."

So Tindley students aren't expected to merely catch up to some grade-level "average." And its teachers don't accept the notion that some percentage of their students won't make it.

Instead, every student is expected to come from behind, surpass average performers and earn admission to a traditional four-year college.


Tindley's classes are small-no more than 20 students per classroom, no more than 80 per grade level.

Families must agree to Tindley's academic and behavior standards, homework requirements and 50 hours of family school involvement annually.

There's no peer pressure to don the best threads: Everyone wears Tindley's khaki pants/crimson tops uniform.

Male and female students attend separate classes. And when they gather in everymorning assemblies, the former give up their seats to the latter.

There are no tiers based on academic performance. The curriculum is 100-percent college prep-the kind of courses reserved for "gifted and talented" students elsewhere.

And the time commitment is heavy: An 8-to-5 school day, a mid-August to end-of-June school year, and after-school, holiday and weekend hours for those who want or need extra help.

"We have to have time to connect," Robinson said. "We need more time to get the job done."

Tindley was launched, in part, by business leaders affiliated with the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. The attorneys, accountants, marketers and other board members not only donate countless pro bono services each year, but also have launched a $5 million capital campaign to retire the school's startup debt and focus even more dollars on students and teachers.

"A successful school doesn't have to be expensive," said Robinson, who added that putting Tindley together cost less than 25 percent of what it typically costs to build a school. "But it does take money. It takes seed dollars. If you can find those, good educators can deliver a tremendous return on investment."

No one's throwing a book at that notion.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm.His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to
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