Having accomplished more in her twenties than many achieve in an entire career, Indiana native Emily Masengale’s rise in the teaching profession has been something approaching meteoric. Still, she is clearly less about the glory and all about the goal. That is, to help students over 18 who dropped out of school earn a high school diploma instead of just a GED.
She earned a BA from Indiana University Bloomington in special education, graduated with a strong desire to work with inner city students, applied and was admitted to the Teach for America corps. She began her career in St. Louis Public Schools teaching special ed students – 18 year-olds who were just a few years younger than she.
“I loved my students there,” she recalls. “I wanted to help identify their potential. They had been told they couldn’t do things. I wanted them to know they could achieve.”
Two years later, while earning her Masters in educational leadership from Saint Louis University and teaching at an alternative high school for students at risk of dropping out, she was named St. Louis Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for Missouri Teacher of the Year. In her fourth year, she was recruited by Teach for America in Indianapolis. Subsequently, she won a fellowship that earned her a full ride in the Masters program at Columbia University in New York City, and she became the first Indianapolis Principal Fellow.
When Opportunity Knocks
Perhaps Emily’s most significant accomplishment was creating the design for Christel House DORS. In 2011, she was contacted by her current boss, Carey Dahncke, of Christel House in Indianapolis, an urban charter school.
“He told me they had an opening for a high school principal. Then he said, ‘We have this idea…to open an adult dropout recovery program for students who have aged out of high school but need a second chance.’ We talked through it, and I took a big leap of faith that it would be approved by the city council and the mayor’s office.”
In August of 2011, after Christel House DORS (Dropout Recovery School) hired her as its founding principal, Emily wrote the charter application and created the school design. In December of that same year, the charter was officially approved, and the school opened in August of 2012 in two locations, starting with just night classes.
“But we realized,” Emily says, “that just holding night classes would eliminate a lot of students who worked nights. So through the Gateway to College National Network, we partnered with Ivy Tech community college to hold daytime classes. In our first year, we had 175 students. Now, we’re in our sixth year – we have a third location, Christel House West – and we serve 565 students.”
Getting the Word Out
How do students find Christel House DORS?
“Our number one referral source is word of mouth,” Emily explains. Success stories, she says, help boost referrals. “And we have an outreach coordinator who has a full-time role. She goes to community events and works with community agencies who serve higher risk populations.”
The program is funded by the state, so attendance costs nothing. “We still get folks all the time who say, ‘I never knew I could get a high school diploma tuition-free.’”
Connecting and Supporting
She describes her personal interactions with DORS students as being different from those of a typical principal or even a principal in an alternative school.
“We see ourselves as advocates and supporters for our students. Since they’re adults, it’s not about discipline. It’s about making the connection with them. Finding out what drives them to be there and what are their interests and challenges. We often hear, ‘I can’t come to school, because I have to take care of the kids.’ So we ask them, ‘What made you sign up, and what kind of difference do you want to see in your future? And how can we support you in getting there?’
“Our model is structured to include wraparound services – teaching assistants, a strong support staff, resource specialists (social workers) and academic assessors (counselors), so students have someone to talk to. With our students, if the lights are off at home, they’re not just enduring it by themselves; it’s actually on their shoulders to get that fixed for their kids. So we’re also helping them know how to support a family and get training.”
Motivating the former dropouts to stay with the program is naturally critical to its success, and motivation, she says, depends largely upon strong relationships between the students and the staff.
“Whether it’s the resource specialists or teaching assistants, the students feel like it’s a family.”
Another important player, she says, is the alumni coordinator, who provides guidance for college and careers. Unlike a high school guidance counselor counterpart, the alumni coordinator works with students for up to five years after graduation.
“It’s tricky to understand financial aid letters, to know things like which books are needed for their courses…it can be foreign territory for first-generation college students. “
The program’s biggest success story lies in its number of graduates. Emily says, “Our first graduating class in 2013 had five students. In 2014 we had 12 students, then 21 students in 2015, 35 students in 2016, and in 2017, we had 85.”
The graduates all have different stories. They are mothers and sons, sisters, shift workers, English language learners, people in difficult or even abusive family situations. What they appear to have in common is their desire to rise and succeed.
Emily has experienced her own personal breakthroughs in her work. “I’ve learned to always be flexible. You never know who’s going to walk through the door. You have to be ready to adjust to fit the student. Also, I believe in second, third and fourth chances…in showing grace to everyone. You never know how they got to where they are. And always be welcoming. Students should always know that when they’re ready, we’ll be here. We know they can be their best selves, and we want to support them in that.”
*Feature photo credit: Paul Montgomery, Christel House International