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Manual High learns of transition plans after principal exit

Manual High students.
Manual High students.
Marc Piscotty

This post has been updated to add new information about Roy’s introduction to the school.

The principal of a Hilltop middle school has been named the new leader at Manual High School, a decision that appears to have been made late last year.

The announcement comes a day after the troubled high school’s principal, Brian Dale, abruptly announced his immediate departure in an email to his staff. It also comes a week after a series of articles chronicling Manual’s descent from reform promise to lowest-performing high school in the city were published by Chalkbeat Colorado.

Don Roy, who resigned the principalship of Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences on Dec. 20, has also previously served as an assistant principal and language arts teacher at Montbello High School, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Roy spent Friday morning visiting classes, some student leaders and staff at the school, and formally introduced himself to the student body and some parents at a meeting on Friday afternoon.

Introducing himself to Manual

Before Roy spoke, Manual’s assistant principal, Vernon Jones, welcomed him to the school and urged students to stay stalwart through the transition.

“We know change can be good,” Jones said. “The school has reason to be excited. We’re going to be T-Bolt Strong. And kick butt for the rest of the year.”

Roy then told the students that he was “so glad and proud” to be assuming leadership of the school.

“I want to tell you what’s important to me,” he said. “Getting kids ready for college and career. I believe in students. I believe in hard work. I believe in teachers. Where it happens is in the classroom.”

He told students to expect to see him regularly in the hallways and in their classrooms, and promised to learn their names quickly. “I know transition can be hard,” he said.

Dale’s abrupt departure and the district’s quick appointment of Roy has left many at the school feeling skittish, some students, parents and staff said in interviews.

After Roy was introduced at the assembly, sophomore Losseny Kone stopped the new principal and asked him what would make him perfect for the students of Manual. “He told me he wasn’t perfect, but to have the best school, to be the best leader, he’d listen and observe,” Kone recalled later.

Kone said that the reaction to the swift change among students was mixed. Dale was well-liked among the student body and the transition was very abrupt, he said.

But with exits comes blessings, he said, and he wished the best for Dale.

“I feel like we’re [going to] move in a positive direction,” he said.

Denise Hubbard, whose daughter is a senior at the school, was even more skeptical of the new leader and critical of how the school district handled the switch.

“The board took away the voice of the parents,” said Hubbard, who learned of the leadership change from a phone call from the school at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning. “They didn’t consult us.”

One staff member, who requested to speak anonymously so as not to damage her relationship with the incoming principal, said that Dale’s departure had shaken the school.

“The building is nervous,” she said. “Students feel abandoned.”

Some students, she said, spent Friday morning crying. Few were able to concentrate on class.

She said that being able to count on the steady presence of known adults is important to students at Manual who may not have stable relationships outside of the school with adults.

“You need to build trust and love with students here before they’ll ever learn,” she said.

She argued that Dale’s swift disappearance and replacement would leave students without the the time they need to process. “It’s just another adult, gone,” she said. “As quiet as Dale was, the kids could still depend on him.”

And some observers worried that the leadership transition will be yet another disruption for a school that has struggled over the last seven years to find stability.

“It’s another change at Manual,” said Jim McNally, the school’s historian and board member of Friends of Manual. “Just what it didn’t need.”

A swift change, but a month in the making

Although Dale’s departure was finalized on Thursday, multiple sources confirmed to Chalkbeat Colorado that district officials have had a new leader in mind for the school since mid-December.

Roy sent a letter to his staff, students and community on Dec. 10 announcing that he was leaving. The letter, which is posted on the school’s website, did not explicitly say that he would be moving to Manual but says that he would “pursue another leadership opportunity within Denver Public Schools.”

District officials said that Roy’s departure from Hill was in fact planned last school year — though at that time officials did not intend for him to move to Manual — and that Roy originally planned to stay at the middle school while he prepared his replacement. However, Roy’s successor at Hill was ready to take the reins there early, freeing Roy to move on mid-year.

Roy began his tenure at Hill in 2001. Hill Middle School has consistently met district’s expectations, according to annual performance reports the district began issuing in 2008. The school’s proficiency rates have also outpaced the district’s since 2011, according to state data.

However, the school has historically had a wide achievement gap between students who qualify for free and reduced lunch — who make up almost 55 percent of the school’s students — and the rest of the student body. Those gaps range from 22 percent in writing to 32 percent in reading.

Manual’s student body is almost entirely minority and qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty.

Dale’s tenure saw a dramatic drop in student performance on state exams. Last year, the school posted the lowest scores on the tests since the school was closed in 2006 and re-opened a year later.

Roy will be the school’s fourth principal in the seven years since it was rebooted. The school’s first principal after the school re-opened, Rob Stein, resigned over conflicts with district administration. After a disjointed effort to find a replacement, Stein was succeeded first by a temporary principal and then by Dale, who assumed leadership of the school in 2011.

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