Worries and confusion, but not anger, dominated the first meeting between Manual High School parents and the school’s new leader, former Hill Middle School principal Don Roy.
Roy joined the school two weeks ago, a day after district officials dismissed the school’s previous principal Brian Dale. Dale had led the school for two and half years, during which the Manual’s once promising academic performance plummeted. Manual has been at the center of Denver’s school improvement efforts for a decade. Its struggles with low performance and leadership turnover were detailed in a four-part series from Chalkbeat Colorado.
The school’s new district supervisor, Greta Martinez, who oversees Denver’s high schools, introduced Roy, saying his hiring is “an opportunity to increase this school year and next school year.”
She also tried to head off the touchiest question of the evening — why the change?
“As for the biggest question we’ve heard, why make this change mid-year?” said Martinez, who oversees the district’s high schools, including Manual. “All of our other schools are on an upward trend. [Here], things are not improving. Things are remaining persistently low.”
Roy addressed a crowd that included roughly thirty parents and alumni as well as two school board members, Happy Haynes and Landri Taylor. The new principal encouraged them to “hold us accountable but hold your kids accountable.”
On increasing Manual’s performance, he said “there are few things getting in the way, including school climate and attitudes towards learning and to being in class.”
Roy encouraged parents to get involved. “It has to be a team effort,” he said.
But the leadership transition didn’t sit well with everyone.
“Trust hasn’t been expressed to parents,” said Pauletta Anderson, whose daughter attends the school. Denver Public Schools (DPS) needs to “trust in the parents.”
Anderson also objected to “strangers coming in trying to tell the community what to do.”
Others pushed for a focus on stability at the school.
“We need to have consistency for these kids because that’s what makes a change,” said a former Manual student, who attended the school in the year before it closed.
“Let’s make stability the biggest thing,” said Rick Jimmerson, parent of a Manual student. ‘
For him, Manual’s struggle went deeper than test scores; instead, he argued that the school’s challenges reflect the changing face of the neighborhood. “When I was a student, we went to church with our teachers,” he said. “But this is a changing neighborhood. If we were so smart, we wouldn’t be doing things like this. You’re not doing [anything] by smart people bouncing around.”
He said part of the solution lay in more discipline with students.
“It’s sad for kids to make the laws on us,” Jimmerson said. “It’s a shame to see all this education going up.”
The biggest worry on everyone’s mind actually had little to do with the transition — student safety and drug use were at the forefront of many parents’ minds.
One mother spoke through a translator about smelling marijuana in the halls when she picked her student up.
“She’s really concerned about after school programs,” translated Veronica Figoli, DPS’ director of community engagement. “She’s like to see a closer eye on students after school.”
Several parents asked Roy what he would be doing about students smoking in the park and strangers hanging out near the school.
“We have concerns about drugs that are here and people who hang around the perimeter of the school,” said one Manual mother.
According to Roy, the school was working on it but he encouraged parents to call the school if they saw anything suspicious. Vernon Jones, Manual’s longtime assistant principal, said they were in talks with city officials to develop a plan for patrolling the park.
The meeting was also the first opportunity many parents had had to ask some burning but basic questions about how the school was run.
“What is the bell time?” asked one father, who said his daughter told him she didn’t have to be there until after eight in the morning.
“The bell time is eight a.m.” confirmed Roy. “We have a lot of students walking in after eight. Now they’re getting caught up in the tardy net.”
Another parent, speaking in Spanish, worried that she didn’t hear about her daughter ditching class until late in the day.
“She drops off her daughter but she doesn’t know if she stays,” Figoli translated.
Roy emphasized that communicating more with parents was one of his top priorities.
“Our goal is to over communicate until you’re sick of hearing from us,” Roy said, getting chuckles from parents. He suggested calling parents earlier in the day and even twice a day. Roy also plans to host open office hours weekly for parents to come and raise concerns.
Jimmerson thanked Roy and the two board members for having the guts to listen to parent concerns.
“To take an open forum takes a lot of stuff,” he said. “Glad to have you back in the conversation the way you are.”