Manual High School, where students are known as Thunderbolts, is one of Denver's oldest high schools.

Rob Stein, who took over Manual High School after it was shut down for poor performance, is leaving after three years at the helm of the historic school in near northeast Denver.

Stein, 50, left a comfortable job running one of the city’s most prestigous private schools to take on the re-opening of his alma mater in August 2007. He told his staff Thursday that it was time for him to move on.

Under Stein’s tenure, student proficiency rates on state exams have more than doubled and Manual now ranks third of Denver’s ten comprehensive high schools.

Rob Stein

As a public-school principal, Stein has frequently chafed at district and union rules and regulations. Manual is one of three schools gaining more freedoms under the state’s Innovation Schools Act but Stein said progress toward greater autonomy has been slow.

Thursday, the three innovation school principals met with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg to discuss their concerns.

“I am entirely committed to the innovation schools,” Boasberg said Friday, “and look forward to working closely with the principals to resolve the concerns they have.”

Boasberg also praised Stein’s work and pledged community involvement in identifying his successor.

“The new Manual is off to a terrific start and will be a very, very attractive place for a talented principal,” he said.

Jorge Merida, a community advocate, said Stein “has done as good of a job as he can possibly do under the circumstances.”

“To me, it means that he was promised a lot of resources and they never materialized,” Merida said. “He’s a very dynamic person and I’m sure he was fighting for a lot of resources but they didn’t come.”

Merida gave a “qualified yes” to the question of whether the new Manual is better preparing students for college, qualified because he said it no longer serves all neighborhood kids. Denver high school students who are learning English and who want classroom instruction in their native language now receive transportation to either South or Lincoln high schools.

Susana Cordova, DPS’ executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the change was made because all high schools didn’t have enough English language learners wanting native-language instruction to build strong programs. The instructional model in the district’s federal court order governing language acquisition is built on 200 students, she said, but most high schools had fewer than 100.

Cordova said students who are learning English who want to attend their neighborhood high schools are taught by teachers trained in English language acquisition and have access to native-language tutors.

Many in the Manual community were worried that the re-opened school would turn neighborhood kids away. But Stein said teachers have gone door-to-door to recruit students to fill seats. About 60 percent of Manual’s 300 students live within school boundaries and many of the others come because they live along convenient city bus routes.

“Very few kids actually choice in from far away but a very significant and interesting handful do and they’re here because of the program, because of the personal attention, because of the academic rigor,” he said. “So I think that is becoming more and more of our brand and I think we’ll see more kids choicing in for positive reasons rather than because we’re on the RTD route.”

Thursday, after his staff meeting, Stein sat down with Education News Colorado to talk about his decision to leave:

EdNews: Why are you leaving?

Stein: I’ve had 28 straight years by the academic calendar doing lunch duty, running faculty meetings … the last 14 years as a school principal.  I admit there’s a certain amount of fatigue that comes with it but it’s a fatigue that I think I’ve earned after three decades, not a burnout.

This is really just more of my recognition that I need a change. When I took this job, I knew it wasn’t a long-term thing. It’s a startup. It was a project to open the school … I don’t think I perceived it as to run the school, I perceived it as to open the school. And before I leave, my first goal is that we have the fourth-year program fully planned out, the staff hired … and this is a four-year school so that work will have been done.

That’s not to say everything is tied up neatly because nothing is ever done and certainly not in schools and school reform.

EdNews: You’ve voiced concerns about your ability to run the school the way you’d like to. How much does that play into this decision?

Stein: It’s hard to tease out a single factor but a source of fatigue in this role is the district context and the bureaucratic context… but that’s what this job is. So saying the water is part of what makes swimming harder is a bit like – well, that’s the context. But were I treading air instead of water, yeah, I think there would be less resistance so of course it’s a factor. But I can’t just point my finger and say there’s blame somewhere.

Very early in this job I changed my views on the value of large centrally-managed school districts and have come much more strongly to believe that if we’re going to have successful schools in urban environments in the future, the district is going to have to play less of a management role and more of a regulatory role. That is, we – school districts – will dispense the funding, we’ll make sure we hold schools accountable for results but we’re going to get out of the daily management of schools.

I think this whole centralized infrastructure that districts have created as they’ve evolved needs to be dismantled or abandoned. So for me to continue to work in this infrastructure, where I don’t believe in it, would be strange.

EdNews: Can you give me an idea what that new infrastructure would look like?

Stein: Charters are a good example. I’m not saying charters are good and neighborhood schools are bad. I’m saying as a management structure, you have a charter school that puts together a very thorough plan. Then if the plan is approved by the board, that’s a regulatory function that a district fulfills, then they get their funding, they find their students and they educate their kids.

And then they’re accountable for results. And if they don’t get their results, then they don’t get their funding and they can’t continue to exist. And so to me, that’s a better model.

Denver's 5280 magazine was among those profiling Stein's challenges at Manual. Scroll down for story link.

If the charter school says, hey, we want a lunch service and they want to purchase lunch service back from the district, great. But if they want to go outside the district and purchase lunch service from somewhere else, that’s ok too.

I think the district needs to see itself less as a centralized service provider. If there’s a service like that that makes sense, great, but frankly, if the whole food service thing dried up in Denver Public Schools, there are other service providers that would fill the void just fine. But when the district says we’re forcing this service on you, it’s a monopoly, we’re the only provider, and you have to take it … that doesn’t work, it needs to go away.

EdNews: But Manual was one of the state’s first innovation schools – aren’t you supposed to have those freedoms?

At this point, the three existing Colorado innovation schools, which are all in DPS, met with the superintendent today (Thursday) and we had a very healthy, constructive discussion about how the rate of implementation of the innovation plans has been slower than we had hoped.

I’m not going to point fingers and say it’s the district’s fault … but it’s been really challenging to navigate through a large bureaucracy and through a lot of resistance or simply inertia to implement the innovation plans. There are fundamental terms of the plan that I don’t think have been upheld.

EdNews: Can you provide an example?

Stein: To me, almost everything comes back to budget because the three key areas are people, programs and money, right? But programs and people are dependent on money. So, for example, I am allowed to offer my own programs and I say I want to offer a different math program than the district. I can go ahead and do that.

But if the district is purchasing a math curriculum and providing professional development services for all teachers to teach that math curriculum and I say, ok, I don’t want to teach that math program, give me my share of money for the textbooks and the training – that doesn’t happen. As long as they hold the purse strings, they’re kind of holding me captive and they’re not implementing the plan.

So where I don’t need money, I’ve had latitude. Where I need resources from the district, i.e. finances from the district, those funds haven’t flowed.

Our implementation plan is very clear – the district will provide a list of services and a list of costs and we can either purchase them from the district at that price or we can purchase them outside. As of now, more than a year after approving the plan, we don’t have that price list. I think we might be close … but it’s been really slow.

EdNews: What is the resistance to that model?

Stein: Partly they’re just not set up that way. You go into Wal-Mart and say I want to have this special product. They say, well, we don’t do it that way and we don’t do that product here. It’s a huge bureaucracy and they’re designed to do things one way. They’re designed for centralization and standardization.

Part of it is culture. And I guess there’s a positive and negative way to look at it. There’s a defensiveness that says, how dare you tell me you don’t value what I offer? I don’t want to give you what you’re asking for.

 But there’s also a genuine concern for kids. Like, my job in this district is to make sure that every kid is safe so I don’t want to give you a slice of the pie for security dollars because I don’t know that you’re going to make kids as safe as I’m concerned they need to be.

So both those things are operating, it’s not just selfish people grabbing their resources.

But a third thing is the district is a jobs program. One of its primary purposes for existence is to keep people employed. And that’s operating too.

EdNews: Did you accomplish at Manual what you set out to accomplish?

Stein: Yes, I think so. The goal was to reopen Manual high school and when I leave, it will have been re-opened. We will have a full four-year program. We are the highest-performing Title I high school in the district. We are a high-growth and top-performing school, according to the School Performance Framework. We have higher growth and higher status – proficiency scores, and higher attendance rates – than the old Manual and the district.

Of the ten traditional comprehensive DPS high schools, we’re ranked third. So if you’d asked me before, do you think you will perform at this level in three years? I would have been overly ambitious to say yes. But when you see all the work we need to do, when you see that our kids are coming in several years below grade level and now that we’ve got our first senior class, it’s unlikely that they’re all going to be college ready according to ACT and Accuplacer (college entrance exams) …there’s a long way to go in terms of urban education. We have not been the alchemists that have figured out how to create that gold.

EdNews: The closure of Manual for a year was extremely difficult for many in the community. How are relations now between the school and community?

Stein: My first meeting at the Ministerial Alliance, my first meeting at the Northeast Community Congress for Education, was extremely tense and somewhat hostile. And the last meeting I went to at the Ministerial Alliance was downright boring and nothing could have been better. It was kind of like, How’s it going? Thanks for coming, Let’s move on to the next item on the agenda. So the tensions have subsided to the point where it feels very comfortable.

I don’t want to take that for granted …I feel very grateful that they worked with me as a partner and we’ve had ongoing, open conversations.

The most exciting thing I’ve been involved with over the past couple of years is the formation, still in its incipient stages, of the Near Northeast Denver Children’s Zone. We’ve got schools and non-profit organizations and foundations meeting right here at Manual High School every month … talking about how we create an entire network of support for kids from birth through college graduation. It’s just increased the level of communication like you wouldn’t believe.

EdNews: Are you worried people will think you’re bailing out on the school?

Stein: I would have worried about that a week ago but I’ve talked to a lot of people and people have been understanding and supportive and I really appreciate that. All I can say is I’m doing my best and I’m fallible and human. I have a lot of stamina and I have a lot of commitment and when I know that it’s time for me to make a change, it’s time to make a change.

EdNews: When is your last day?

Stein: I don’t know. I’m ready to go when we find a replacement and when the school is in good hands. (The superintendent) actually asked if I’m willing to stick around through a transition and help either orient and mentor somebody and I’m perfectly happy to do that. I also know when we hire somebody, he or she may very well say, take a hike, I don’t need you here and I respect that too.

But certainly I’m here through the end of the school year and the summer. We’ve got a lot of work to finish. Of the things I want to get done, no. 1 is the full four-year program and no. 2 is full implementation of the innovation plan. It’s a super important precedent and I think it offers a lot of promise, not just for Manual but for Colorado and the nation. I’ve heard from schools and organizations in other states looking at our innovation plans as something that might really hold promise.

Click here to read Stein’s letter of resignation. And click here to read 5280’s profile of Stein.