The teachers had turned the classroom into an instructional war room. The walls were covered with bar graphs, hand-drawn in magic marker. Yearbook photos appended each graph, showing the faces of the students whose results were on display.
It was late in the afternoon on an early November day, and the staff at Manual High School in northeast Denver had just analyzed the school year’s first round of diagnostic tests, translating scores into predictions of each student’s post-graduation options. The outlook was not good.
“Terrifying,” one teacher observed, looking at the sophomores’ proficiency rates.
If the proficiency trend continued, most of the students, the data forecasted, would not score high enough on the ACT to be accepted into a selective college like the University of Colorado — or even one of the state’s community colleges.
The results were not supposed to be so dire. Eight years ago, Manual High School was the centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts, dramatically shuttered and reopened by the district administration with the promise of turning a long-struggling high-poverty high school into the city’s academic crown jewel.
The reboot was supposed to end the school’s long decline and return it to its place as one of the city’s most beloved campuses, known for its academic excellence and championship-winning basketball team.
But that isn’t the case. Manual is once again the worst-performing high school in the city, as judged by state test scores. By some measures, the school is worse even than it was when the school board voted to shutter its doors in 2006. Instead of symbolizing urban school reform’s promise, the school is now a case study in the all-too-common descent from good intentions to disappointment.
This fall, Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual, interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. Over the next four days, we will explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. We will describe key challenges facing Manual today as it moves forward. And we will explore the role that Manual’s community — students, parents, and a vocal corps of alumni — has played in Manual’s past, present, and future.
The obstacles Manual faces as it once again begins the uphill battle of improving performance include:
- Tense relations between the school and the district. Through many fits and starts, and three principals in the last seven years, Manual’s relationship with Denver Public Schools has been a constant challenge. Early on, the district offered the school autonomy to hire its own team of teachers and choose its own curriculum and teaching materials. In practice, the principal who first led the turnaround, Rob Stein, found himself getting snared in the district’s bureaucracy. In more recent years, Stein’s successor, current principal Brian Dale, has enjoyed much of the autonomy that Stein fought for but also discovered the downside to that independence: a lack of support and oversight that led to challenges from financial mismanagement to low teacher morale.
- A revolving leadership door. Manual saw strong gains in test scores under Stein. But after Stein left the school, the search for a new leader was slow and fraught with problems. Waiting for a permanent leader, Denver Public Schools placed administrator Joe Sandoval as a temporary principal. But without a permanent leader, the school lost its forward momentum, and by the time Dale arrived, progress had begun to flag.
- Finding a consistent instructional approach. Since the mid-1990s, Manual has undergone repeated overhauls to its academic program. Under Stein, the school modeled itself on successful “no excuses” charter schools. Under Dale, the school now aims to turn students into “revolutionaries for social justice.” Many teachers say they long to try a single approach — and stick with it long enough to make it work.
- Mismanagement of school funds. The school is working to repay a $600,000 debt to the district after leaders overspent their budget last year. The district failed to notice the school dipping into the red until months after the funds were already used for the school’s aggressive year-round model. The financial woes have jeopardized the centerpiece of Manual’s current instructional model — weeks-long cross-country trips designed to enhance the students’ learning and expand their horizons.
- Reclaiming school culture. School staff are tirelessly working to instill in students a sense that they can be academically successful and can transform their neighborhood — and the world. But they’re battling a years-old stigma established by poor performance and a dramatic school closure. Teachers are exhausted from navigating the tension between the experience of the school and their current aspirations. And even though they trust their teachers, students are tuning out the hopeful message.
All of the challenges add up to a school that has tried many times to improve, with few long-term accomplishments to show for all the hope and hard work.
“Manual is sort of a case study of the classic tragic dark side of reform,” said Van Schoales, head of local advocacy group A+ Denver and a leader in several attempts to reboot the school’s performance. “There were heroic efforts by individuals or community members or others to do stuff and in every instance that I can think of, they were half measures.”
“I’m not learning anything”
One byproduct of the school’s current social-justice focus is that teachers and students are encouraged to think critically about what the school’s struggles mean for their lives.
Social studies teacher Andrew Egeler has structured a quarter-long unit around the study of oppressed and marginalized communities. One day, in November, one of the communities he asked his students to consider was their own: how is Manual and its low accountability ranking a social justice issue for the community?
Students sat in a haphazard circle while Egeler asked them to consider a variety of questions and give evidence for their answers: How has their community been marginalized? How is Manual different than other schools? Do you believe all kids in Denver have the same opportunities? What, if anything, could the school do to create equity?
Sophomore Nyesha Anderson had a simple request: teach her.
“I’m not learning anything,” she told the class.
“I can try my best with the education Manual gives me,” another student said, agreeing with Anderson. “But it might not be enough.”
A transfer student from Bishop Machebeuf, a private Catholic school in Denver, said responsibility lies with his fellow students.
“So many students don’t have respect for teachers,” he said. “And the teachers don’t know what to do. … We bring it upon ourselves. A lot of people just sit outside and smoke. We do it. It’s self-fulfilling.”
Another noted: “Some people get pushed down — and stay down.”
The following day, in a class a few doors down, a group of ninth grade boys huddled noisily around their teacher, Chris DeRemer, a veteran teacher who had come to the school only recently.
One boy, in a black hoodie, explained the commotion to a reporter. The students were waiting to receive their latest scores on tests designed to predict their end-of-year performance and ultimately their chances of getting into college. They were excited, chatting eagerly about how they thought they did.
But when they saw the scores, the students were dismayed. Some collapsed on their desks in heaps of teenage despair.
“Looks like I’m going to community college,” one boy said. “Can I leave?”
The boy in the black hoodie — the one who’d been chatting warmly just a moment ago — now sat in the back of the room, staring at the paper detailing his scores in silence. When his teacher sat with him to cheer him up, the student didn’t budge. His head slumped to his chest, scores in hand.
DeRemer encouraged them to think of the scores not as a failure but as an opportunity to improve.
“[The score] does not matter yet except where to improve,” he said. But his students loudly bemoaned the fate predicted by their scores.
“I’m never going to college,” said Dayshawn, a small young man in a red hoodie. Under his breath, he added, “I ain’t going to college. I go to Manual.”
More threats to leave or tear up their results followed. But no one followed through. Instead, DeRemer’s students lingered, shushing each other as he talked about what they could do to improve their scores and how to handle the testing environment.
“We have a lot of work to do as teachers,” he told his students.
“The school needs work,” Dayshawn replied.
The stakes of that work are high. Manual is entering its first year of “turnaround” status, which means the school has five years to improve or the state’s Board of Education, under current law, can recommend a new principal and teaching staff be put in place, be turned over to a charter, or be closed altogether.
And that’s just the state. Denver Public Schools has the power to make dramatic changes to the school, including changing the school’s leadership at any time. But right now, the district seems poised to take a more conservative approach.
One option the district is considering is moving Manual into its northeast turnaround network, a group of schools that have undergone drastic improvement measures, including phase-outs and charter takeovers. Schools within the network have extended learning time, which Manual already employs, and receive additional support, including weekly visits from district staffers, targeted tutoring efforts in core subjects, data evaluations on measures including internal test scores and attendance, and accountability reports to track the schools’ progress.
According to the district’s innovation leader, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the goal is to provide schools with specialized expertise on dramatically improving their performance.
But nothing is for sure — the move depends on negotiations between the district and school leaders that will play out over the next several months.
This year’s steep drop in test scores has given the school a sense of urgency, according to Rebecca Martinez, one of the school’s instructional coaches, who also directs the school’s experiential learning program. They want the space to prove the instructional model they believe in — an alternative to the more prevalent “no-excuses” model the school once followed. But without support, they worry they will be forced to give up that aspiration, too.
“We have no time,” she said. “We have negative time.”
Although sources within the district said that Manual’s 2006 abrupt closure and re-opening proved a hard lesson about the challenges of closing a school, Manual’s recent academic challenges have once again sparked fears of closure among students and staff.
“Every time [students] see a downward data point, they say we’re closing,” Manual’s assistant principal, Vernon Jones said. The scars of the closure, he said, are still present on the community’s perception of the school.
While many observers still believe the decision to close Manual was the right one, the district has never repeated the process elsewhere and district officials say they’re unlikely to again.
The district has closed other low-performing schools gradually, phasing them out grade by grade as replacement schools phase in.
“We got smarter,” former DPS board president Theresa Peña , who voted in 2006 to shutter the school.
And according to the district, another attempt to close Manual is not even on the table.
“That is 100 percent not a conversation we’re having right now,” said Whitehead-Bust, who oversees Manual and who would be in charge of presenting any plans for change to the school.
But despite the spectre of closure, Jones sees signs of hope amidst the daily chaos.
A group of ninth graders have formed an honors book club. Sophomores have banded together to improve attendance. Groups of seniors spill into the Denver Scholarship Foundation to apply for college.
Administrators and teachers have worked hard to rebuild a warm and caring culture. Although many students remain disruptive, staff address issues with a personal touch, spending hours of their days talking with them and helping them formulate solutions for their problems.
These are the signs Jones points to when he says the school is headed for a new renaissance.
“We’ve come out of the winter of closure,” Jones said. “We’re in the Manual spring.”
On Wednesday, Chalkbeat Colorado looks at the various instructional models Manual has attempted to implement, options spanning the spectrum of ideas about what schools in high-poverty communities need to succeed.