Facebook Twitter
A Manual student, deep in thought.

A Manual student, deep in thought.

Marc Piscotty

After a midyear leadership change, new faces and new rules at a struggling school

More security, stricter rules and new faces — these are among the changes teachers and students at Denver’s Manual High School have noticed since Don Roy, the school’s new principal, took the reins six weeks ago.

Roy, who came from Hill Middle School, has brought on new staff, including two new assistant principals, and has tried to reverse the school’s high tardiness rate and low attendance.

District officials fired the school’s previous leader, Brian Dale, several weeks into the spring semester, citing disgruntled parents and teacher turnover.

At a community meeting shortly after Roy’s hiring, parents complained of a lack of communication, spotty discipline and drug use.

At the meeting, Roy promised parents he would refocus on academics and establish clear guidelines for behavior.

“[The school] was a bit of a rec center,” said Roy. In an effort to get parents on board with his efforts, he has added more information to the school’s website for parents and started calls home about attendance and tardiness issues.

In the classroom, teachers now use a checks system for student tardies and have students walking in the door late sign in to a log. Consistently tardy students get a call home and lunch detention.

“I do think school-wide consistency is good,” said Ben Butler, who teaches language arts. He says the policy means more kids are on time and has provided opportunities for students to reach out about personal issues.

“I’ve had kids write [in the log] ‘can I talk to you about this?” said Butler, who said he already checked in regularly with his students. But the log is good way to catch red flags.

“Systems have been tightened up,” said Butler.

According to Roy, that’s part of his plan to gradually ratchet up practices and expectations, rather than make immediate, dramatic changes to the way the school runs.

“It’s been so hard on teachers and students–all of the transitions,” said Roy. “I didn’t want to come in making waves and chaos.”

In fact, he said, many policies were already in place — it was just a question of enforcing them.

Inside the school, the response has been mixed, with many students and teachers both happy to see the new rules and upset at the transition.

“I feel like it got stricter in a good way,” said Tonya, a freshman at Manual who was eating lunch in the stairwell and did not want to give her last name. “There’s been less drama and fewer fights between students.”

She said the the presence of extra security guards making sure student were on time has made a visible difference in the halls.

“Now that there’s more security, fewer kids are walking around with each other,” she said.

She said it has made a difference for her.

“I’m actually trying to do my work,” she said.

But she said some of her friends are pushing back against the changes.

“A lot of students are upset about how the principal was fired,” Tonya said. Students also complained that some of the rules felt too much like micromanaging.

And progress hasn’t been consistent throughout the school.

“There are some [classes] where it feels like it did before” the change of principal, said Dulce, another Manual freshman seated nearby. “[In those classes] it feels like it made a difference but it only lasts a few days.”

School leaders don’t expect a change to come overnight, but even Roy has been frustrated with the rate of change.

“I don’t feel a sense of urgency on the part of students on performance,” said Roy. But he hopes by “repeating the message,” students will accept the changes as the new norm.

Not all of the changes at Manual have been small adjustments. The school has already seen staff turnover, although some of that may be related to issues predating Roy’s tenure.

Two teachers left on Roy’s first day as principal, citing stress-related health concerns, and a paraprofessional departed as well. Roy has also brought back staff who had recently departed, including a math teacher. The math teacher’s wife, Lauren Sabo, who worked with special education students, was planning to leave – Roy and district officials convinced her to stay.

The biggest change was the departure of Rebecca Martinez, the school’s head instructional coach and director of experiential learning, whose position was cut. It’s the only position that’s been cut, although some teachers who left have not been replaced. The elimination of that job has raised questions for some about the future of the program.

“If you’re not going to do experiential learning, you don’t need a director of experiential learning,” said Vernon Jones, who became an assistant principal under Dale and a long-time vocal member of the school community. “That says a lot about your commitment.”

So far there has not been substantial outcry from parents or community members. But Jones believes that’s because many parents are still waiting to see how things play out and deciding how to respond.

“I think [the district] underestimates how big of a wave the leadership change [was],” said Jones, whose daughter and niece both attend Manual. “Do we want to engage in a battle that will distract from our kids?”

Roy says he understands the people who are worried about the school’s future.

“If I were a parent at this school, I would be fed up with the lack of consistency,” said Roy. But so far, he says he has received a lot of positive responses.

And even skeptics like Jones are hopeful.

“My disposition is everybody gets a chance,” said Jones. “I think he has the right kind of love for students. He has really been open to other voices.”