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An open letter to Manual stakeholders, the DPS Board of Education and DPS leaders

As a Manual High School alum and community member who has been deeply involved in Manual for years, I feel a sense of responsibility to share some insights based on past (and recent) experience as the community and district work to determine – yet again –  the future of Manual and its students.

While many may see this most recent round of problems at Manual as a déjà vu moment all over again, I know bold and right decisions can be made now that will chart a new course for the Manual community, one that will do right by the students today, and long into the future. After all, it is long past time that we finally get this right.

During the closing and reopening of Manual under Superintendent Michael Bennet, I had the privilege of working for Denver Public Schools as the liaison to Manual. We had high hopes about what the school could become, even in the wake and turmoil of the failure of the small schools initiative. Despite deep heartache and skepticism surrounding the closure, there was also a great deal of optimism about the future – because there was an abiding belief and obsessive optimism that Manual could be a great school.

There was progress for some years under Principal Rob Stein. However, after a  more recent round of failed strategy and leadership, many are shaking their heads and throwing up their hands, dubious as to whether anything can work, or searching for the next experiment to try, at Manual.

Neither route is right.

Because despite the failure of all the adults (including myself), the Manual community and students are capable and deserving, and resilient. And ready – and hungry – for success. We have already lost too much precious time – and failed far too many deserving students. We cannot wait any longer to get Manual right. This latest failure creates the chance for a fresh start. But this MUST be the last start.

In an effort to seed success and help inform the work of the Manual community, I offer a few insights:

  1. Select a proven leader OR a proven provider to run the school and give them autonomy to operate. The single most important decision for the future of Manual will be to either select an outstanding school leader who has a proven track record of successfully running a secondary school with a high free- and reduced- lunch population. Or it will be to select an excellent school provider with a proven track record of success working with a similar population. It should not matter one bit what the governance structure is – it could very well be a charter provider – so long as we keep the focus on the kids, versus the adults. A track record of success is key.
  2. TIME.  First, ensure there is enough time to properly select the right leader or school provider. Don’t rush into a hasty decision. By all accounts, it seems that Dr. Roy, the interim leader at Manual, is focused on student success. During his able and stable leadership, the district should take the time necessary to identify the appropriate long-term fit and vision that will enable permanent success. Second, once the new leader and/or provider has been identified, ensure that they have enough time to plan, hire, and execute on the vision. I was on the team who hired Dr. Rob Stein to guide Manual after its reopening; and one of our biggest mistakes prior to his hiring was not giving him (and his new team) enough lead planning time.
  3. A feeder program. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results. Manual has been chronically failed by a lack of a feeder program. Manual should have either a strong middle school component in the new school or a high-quality guaranteed feeder. That was another lesson learned from the last re-opening of Manual; because we failed to incorporate it as a 6-12 school. Having more time with students when they are younger is key for academic success.
  4. The role of the district…  The role of the district and its relationship with the school needs to be crystal clear, and for too long, that relationship has been bipolar. We have vacillated between too little autonomy to too much autonomy, and that swinging pendulum has plagued past leaders. It is imperative – on the front end – to detail what specific resources, support, autonomies, to name a few, will be given when the new school leader takes over. And on the leadership and provider selection side, the district needs to work tirelessly (starting now) to court and identify truly capable individuals, teams, and organizations that can deliver on a quality school for this community. And, to rebuild trust and community-capital, the district needs to share weekly reports with the public in order to over-communicate their progress and clear processes for selecting and supporting the next leadership regime.  Accountability and transparency need to be the new norm.
  5. …And of a community board. If Manual becomes a charter school, there will be a governing board responsible for its success.   If Manual remains a district school (and it is possible that there could be more than one school housed in the facility), there will need to be a strong community board that can support the new leadership team and help advocate for the school and students. Like a charter board, it should focus on achievement, engagement, finances and ensuring the overall success of the school. Plus, this will help ensure continuity (should there be other leadership changes) and long term implementation of a vision.
  6. Move forward, not back. It is imperative to go forward, not back.  There were many great things about Manual when I, and so many in the city, attended. However, even then it was far from perfect. There was a staggering achievement gap (as was recently highlighted in Alan Gottlieb’s article about the history of the school) – similar to the one East High School has today. So, don’t let nostalgia guide any decision making. Let’s focus on the future, and what the community needs (and deserves) not just today, but tomorrow.  There are school leaders and providers with a track record of success committed to educating all students.  The students at Manual absolutely deserve that, and so much more.

The Manual Community Council (a group of over 30 leaders that was formed during the closure of Manual) produced a report that broadly represented what they wanted in the future of Manual. Although this is a new time, there are many core concepts in this document that could serve as a starting point for the current group tasked with the future of Manual.

There is an opportunity to do right by past, current, and future Manual students.  No more experiments.  Only proven leaders or proven providers.  It is way past time to get things right.  And that commitment should be a primary focus for all stakeholders.

Manual represents deserving and capable students, and is a beautiful facility in the heart of the city surrounded by a diverse and passionate community.  We can make it a cultural and educational centerpiece again.  And we must.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.