Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy Principal Nicole Chisley’s makeshift office appears, at first glance, to be a storage closet for the boxes piled high along two large walls in the small, windowless space.
Indeed, it serves its purpose – for the time being – with a small desk, computer and phone.
Until her office is ready at the school’s new building, formerly Zion Lutheran Church’s academy located near the intersection of Hanna and Creighton streets, Chisley has set up shop in the Fort Wayne Urban League, the founding organization of Marshall Academy.
The Urban League believed the time was right to start a charter school and submitted its application to the Indiana Charter School Board. Its application was approved and Marshall Academy was born. The Urban League chose American Quality Schools, a charter management company that operates schools in Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, to operate the school.
Chisley was one of two candidates who interviewed for the school leader position with the local school board. Urban League CEO Jonathan Ray said that one candidate decided the job wasn’t for him, and Chisley was selected.
“She’s a hard worker. She wishes to get started right away,” Ray said of Chisley at the time.
That was in early June. Fast forward a month, and find Chisley hard at work to prepare a curriculum, teachers and a building for students to begin classes on Aug. 20. So is she feeling the pressure?
“I feel that there are high expectations, but I don’t fear those expectations. I wouldn’t use the word pressure,” she said. “I know what the opinions are of people in traditional public schools. Some of the things I once thought about charters, I now know aren’t always true. I have good teachers and good experience, so I think I will be OK.”
Ray said he believes Chisley will work closely with the parents in the neighborhood and will be able to relate easily to them.
Chisley knew from a young age that she would be an educator, or at the very least in a profession serving young people. Her mother was a teacher and principal; her brother, aunt and uncle were all educators and administrators or department chairs; and her father served the police department as a sergeant.
“It was expected that I would work to make life better for children,” she said of the influence of her family.
Chisley, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, has been an educator for 19 years. She holds a bachelor’s in secondary education from Indiana University and a master’s in administration and supervision for kindergarten through 12th grade from Butler University. Chisley is also bilingual in Spanish, according to her resume.
Chisley most recently served as the principal at Pacers Academy High School, an alternative high school for credit recovery, within the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indianapolis. She started her career as a sixth- and seventh-grade social studies teacher at Meridian Middle School, in MSD Perry Township.
Chisley taught for seven years before accepting a full-time administrative position as the dean of girls at Southport High School, also in Perry Township in Indianapolis, where she remained for three years. For the next five years, Chisley served as the assistant principal of two different high schools in Indianapolis before accepting the principal position at Pacers Academy in 2008.
Chisley said she hopes to implement certain initiatives at Marshall Academy that she observed as an assistant principal, including offering on-site health services like a dentist and a doctor.
Chisley describes herself as a “hands-on administrator.”
“I will go to homes if I have to,” she said.
She’s also been known to hold school on Saturday for struggling students, and what she calls “Chisley Chats” with teachers to learn about what kind of professional development they need or want. She believes that while students and teachers are in the school building, her time should be spent with them, saving reports and paperwork for after school hours.
As the school’s leader, Chisley will also be in charge of student discipline, which at Marshall Academy will be based on the offense. There are guides in the parent and student handbook provided by the school to ensure fairness and consistency, but Chisley said her discipline philosophy is to train kids to make better decisions.
This philosophy is also one she uses at home. As a mother, Chisley said she can relate to parents.
“I can put myself in the position of a parent. I understand what parents need and expect,” she said. “As a parent I have high expectations. If it’s not good enough for my kid, it’s not good enough for someone else’s.”
Although she said she considered sending her son to Marshall Academy, Chisley said she didn’t want to make teachers uncomfortable or have her son treated differently because his mom is the principal. She said he will attend Southwest Allen County Schools.
Chisley said the reputation of Fort Wayne’s other charter schools – which are some of the lowest-performing schools in the county on state standardized test scores – has proven to be a challenge, with regard to spreading positive information about Marshall Academy.
She said her goals for the school year include getting the maximum number of students in grades K-8, which is 225, and achieving a 100 percent ISTEP+ standardized test pass rate. Chisley said she would be happy with 85 percent, teachers getting to know their students on an individual level and letting parents know Marshall Academy is their school, too.
Chisley plans to have a school program that allows students and parents to be “stockholders” in the school, an exercise to teach students about investing and to get parents involved.
Chisley said she understands the challenges of building a school from the ground up, but believes her high expectations and experience will make the venture successful.
“Failure is just not an option,” she said.
She also hopes the community will keep an open mind and give the school an opportunity to prove that a charter school can be high-performing.
“We’re just another option. We’re not a threat,” she said. “One size doesn’t fit for all students, and we’re just another option for kids that the traditional public school setting hasn’t worked for.”