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Manual expansion to 6-12 in works

A plan to expand northeast Denver’s venerable yet still struggling Manual High School to include grades 6 through 8 could be brought to the Denver Public Schools board as soon as October.

This means Manual, shuttered for low performance in 2006 and reborn the following year, could begin experiencing an attendance boom little more than a year from now.

“I strongly believe that a strong Manual 6-12 would be very good for that area of the town, for that region, and would complement well the feeder patterns in that area,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

The plan, still being fine-tuned by DPS staff, requires some other northeast Denver school reconfigurations as well:

  • Harrington Elementary and Columbine Elementary, both serving preschool through grade 6, would convert to preschool through grade 5 for 2012-13.
  • Fifth-graders in 2011-12 at Harrington and Columbine would become sixth-graders at Manual in 2012-13.
  • Manual would launch its 6-8 program with enrollment of up to 75 sixth-graders for the 2012-13 school year, with the full 6-12 program to be in place in fall 2014.

Manual to be part of NNE enrollment zone

The district, meanwhile, is also developing plans for implementation of a Near Northeast enrollment zone, which will include Manual, Bruce Randolph, Cole Arts and Science Academy, and the Denver School of Science and Technology.

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The area would be served by its own shuttle transportation network – similar to the one being instituted as part of the Far Northeast turnaround.

A rationale for Manual’s expansion is contained in the Near Northeast Denver Pathways to Graduation report, prepared by the Near Northeast Network of Schools, an advisory group comprised of DPS staff, Metro Organizations for People and The Civic Canopy, a Denver-based non-profit that promotes community-level collaboration.

“Currently, the boundary lines for Bruce Randolph and Manual lead to overcrowding at Bruce Randolph and difficulty in recruiting for Manual 9-12,” that report states.

“I think the planned expansion is going to offer the community three different but great programs to choose from – those being Manual, Bruce Randolph and DSST-Cole, and I think that’s going to be a huge benefit to the whole community,” said new Manual Principal Brian Dale.

Expanding grades a long-perceived need

Rob Stein, who served as Manual’s principal from its reopening in 2007 until the end of 2009-2010, said discussions about adding middle school years at Manual began during his tenure.

Stein said 17 different schools fed into Manual but no school gave it even 25 percent of its incoming students – the largest was Wyatt-Edison, a nearby charter school, which fed between 20 and 25 percent of its graduates to Manual.

“That was one set of issues,” Stein said, “the chaos of, where are our ninth-graders coming from?”

Vernon Jones, previously an assistant principal at Manual and now the school’s director of community engagement, said, “We’ve got the whole ball of wax here. They’re all learning differently, there’s been no consistency. It’s a nightmare.”

Nevertheless, the class of 2011 graduated 67 of its 80 students, a rate of 84 percent. Of those who graduated last month, 94 percent were accepted to college.

Under the DPS School Performance Framework, Manual in 2010 scored 48 percent, giving it “accredited on watch” status, meaning it was performing below district expectations and needs to show improvement. Its score put Manual just three points below the category of “meets expectations.”

The DPS performance framework breaks schools down into five ratings categories: distinguished, meets expectations, accredited on watch, accredited on priority watch and accredited on probation. In 2009, 37 percent were accredited on watch and 39 percent met expectations.

Officials anticipate an enrollment surge

Manual’s enrollment for the coming year stands at 367, which is already the largest student population since reopening. But the district expects it will reach 400 to 420 by fall. Should the change to a 6-12 school be approved, Jones believes expansion could ultimately swell the Manual population to as high as 1,000.

During a recent tour of Manual’s grounds, Jones pointed out room after room where echoes, not education, have been the main product in recent years. Just off the band room, which has had no consistent use since Manual’s rebirth, dusty musical instruments sit idle in cabinets that have been tagged with graffiti.Jones sees a rebirth of electives as one possible benefit of the planned expansion. But he emphasized that Manual’s own specific needs can’t be viewed outside the context of the health of the entire Near Northeast school network.

“You can’t do this just in isolation,” said Jones. “This is not just about Manual. It’s about fixing a bigger problem in the Near Northeast, to make sure all our schools have equitable feeder patterns.”

DPS staff  outlined the Manual expansion in its  regional recommendations recently presented to the school board, but the board didn’t vote on a Manual plan at its June 30 meeting.

“I think the board felt that we wanted to make sure that all the options were on the table in terms of what happens to the rest of that building, so that we have the best way forward to support the existing school,” said board president Nate Easley, whose district includes Manual.

“The question is, do we have the most coherent plan, and have we vetted it with the community, and is there buy-in to that plan, etc. I don’t think we were convinced that was happening.”

Dale, the new Manual principal, said the academic program for the added grades  “is going to be a heavy emphasis on skills – reading, writing and math skills – that really support kids, to get them to grade level by the time they’re in eighth grade so that they’re really able to access the ninth grade curriculum, with a heavy emphasis on intervention programs to get them to grade level.”

Work needed to sell idea to the community

Karen Mortimer is on the education committee for Metro Organizations for People, a partner in the Near Northeast Network of Schools, as well as president of the Parent Teacher Association for Whittier K-8.

By Mortimer’s accounting, there is still work to be done in educating – and selling –  Near Northeast community members on what’s in store for Manual, pending school board approval.

“I think the community is cautious because they don’t know yet what the school is going to look like,” Mortimer said. “Part of the challenge for Manual is, this is not a middle school coming into existence because the community has demanded it. It more bursts from within Manual itself.”

The Manual that is looking to expand is not the same school that took its first tentative steps into a new life when it reopened four years ago. According to Jones, there are only three faculty members on staff now who were part of that re-launch.

“It is an unfortunate dilemma that schools like this have, with really high turnover,” Dale acknowledged. “These schools … are considered hard-to-staff schools for a reason – because it’s very challenging work.

“Turnover is not good, there’s no question about that, and certainly we want to reduce  the amount of turnover.  I’m in no way excusing that, and we intend to try to change that.”

Manual, which was profiled in 2007 by The New Yorker magazine as a textbook example of the daunting challenges of school reform, has done just enough in recent years to create hope, yet not enough to alleviate deep concern about its future.

Mortimer said she sees Manual inching toward respectability. Many, she said, want to see it accelerate its improvement.

“I do honestly think that Manual’s bad reputation in the community is somewhat undeserved,” she said. “I think they’ve been doing some wonderful things, and I think anyone going to their graduation ceremony this year would be pretty inspired by some of the students at Manual.

“They have a lot of community relations work to do, and I think the more that they pull longtime community members as well as new people in the community into this process they’re embarking on, the better they’ll be in the long-term.”

Manual High School’s history since busing

  • Integration, 1973 – An expansion would mark a significant step in the evolution of Manual, which was integrated through busing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that DPS had intentionally segregated schools and put in place a district busing plan.
  • End of busing, 1995 – The infusion of students from generally higher socio-economic backgrounds raised the average level of academic performance at Manual, though low-income student achievement remained abysmal. The busing order was lifted in 1995 by U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch.
  • Division into three, 2001 – The school board redrew the school’s boundaries so that virtually all students in the new attendance zone were low-income, and test scores plummeted. In 2001, DPS divided Manual into three high schools, one to each floor and each with its own principal. A $1.2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund the transformation.
  • Closure, 2006 – But the experiment failed and achievement continued to decline, leading the school board and then-Superintendent Michael Bennet to close Manual after the 2005-06 school year. Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, promised that when Manual reopened it would be a “premiere high school.”
  • Reopening, 2007 – Manual started a new life with its reopening in August 2007, beginning a slow climb back toward greater respectability, adding one grade at a time, and winning approval as one of the first two DPS innovation schools in March 2009.
  • Changes, 2010 – Rob Stein – a busing-era Manual graduate, class of 1978 – was hired away from the prestigious Graland Country Day School to oversee Manual as principal at its rebirth. Stein held that job for two years and left at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, in part because he chafed at bureaucratic constraints imposed by district administration.
  • Today – DPS veteran Joe Sandoval served as interim principal in 2010-11, presiding over the school’s first graduating class since its reopening. Brian Dale, assistant principal for the past two years at Bruce Randolph School, took the helm July 1 for the next phase of Manual’s journey.