INDIANAPOLIS—A Hebrew proverb says: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”
In Indianapolis, students at the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School rub shoulders with the wise each year through a civic leadership class. It’s part of a culture of high expectations created at the charter high school in a low-income part of town. Students are expected to go to college. They wear tan slacks, a purple blazer, and white shirts. They politely introduce themselves to visitors.
This month’s leadership lineup includes five college presidents, the chief financial officer of Eli Lilly & Co., and Brian Payne, the president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation.
Payne told students about the importance of perseverance in times of failure. “Everyone can deal with good luck and success,” he said. “But in failure how do you react and learn from your mistakes?”
Wabash College President Patrick White spoke about leading an all-women college, St. Mary’s in South Bend, Ind., as well as the all-male Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. He said students at both schools often set aspirations too low.
“Recognize that it doesn’t matter if you think you aren’t very competent,” White said. “You have no idea how good you are. Don’t let other people define you down.”
The leadership series is an example of how Tindley sets high expectations for students, regardless of family and economic background. Nearly all the graduates go to college, some to elite schools with demanding academic standards.
Students who struggled in other school settings often get turned around at Tindley.
“I think it’s human nature that people generally rise to the level of expectations,” Payne said. “When you create a culture of high expectations, people generally will self-select out of that culture if they are not committed. They have this culture at Tindley that you will work hard. If you aren’t ready to work, you may not want to be there.”
The January leadership class is for juniors, to help prepare the students for college and civic leadership.
Student Natalie James aspires to a doctorate in child psychology and especially remembers advice from Joe Simpson of Indiana Legal Services: “Eliminate reasons for people to eliminate you.”
Cantron Quarles has learned that anyone can be a leader, although styles will vary. “You learn more life lessons in this class than in a regular academic class,” he said.
The leadership class illustrates another key to Tindley’s success—intentional connections to community leaders. Board members include top civic and business leaders.
Apart from impressive test scores and college readiness, the best charter schools have discovered an old but often lost tradition in public schools—reconnection to community leadership.