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A new plan emerges among parallel discussions at Manual High School

What does the future hold for Manual High School? One possibility — designed by the school’s current leadership — goes public tonight.

The plan that will be presented publicly on Thursday comes out of one of two planning processes that are currently taking place at the school and that occasionally happen at the same time, just classrooms apart.

Manual has been in upheaval since district officials fired its principal midway through this school year following several years of declining test scores. (For background, see Chalkbeat’s series on the school’s struggles.)

To chart the path forward for the school, the district has solicited proposals for new school models for Manual and convened a group of community members, staff and parents — known as “Thought Partner meetings” — to determine how to improve the persistently struggling school’s performance.

Simultaneously, a group spearheaded by current assistant principal Vernon Jones, Jr., has focused on creating a plan that would keep the school’s current leadership team and staff intact. That plan, which Jones is presenting to the community this evening to solicit feedback, includes a focus on International Baccalaureate (IB) classes and another request for a longed-for middle school at Manual, which would also have an IB focus. (See the full description of the plan here.)

The school-led group is among several that submitted a proposal to the district during its call for new school models. Along with the other applicants, the Manual-led group will present their plans to the district-run Thought Partner group at next week’s official meeting. The Thought Partner group will make recommendations about what model the school should adopt to the district by May.

In its current form, the Manual-designed plan represents a departure from the school’s current experiential learning model, which is focused heavily on social justice instruction.

“A lot of hours, thinking, grappling, collaborating, challenging, and anything else that you can say that great teams do has gone into this plan,” Jones said. “Our process has included the voices of our staff, our scholars, our parents and guardians, and our community partners that believe in the strength of us.”

Jones says that the school’s current staff are best positioned to lead the school’s improvement efforts.

“We believe that we are best positioned to serve our scholars and our community well,” Jones said. “We know them and knowing scholars is essential to success.”

Students and staff have complained about the constant turnover in school model and leadership at the school, which they say has prevented the school from improving.

Stability and a strong desire for a middle school have been common threads at the Thought Partner meetings as well. Several staff members are parts of both groups, including Jones, Don Roy, the school’s principal whose name adorns the official letter of intent for the proposal, and English teacher Ben Butler, who is one of the school’s few veteran teachers.

The Thought Partner meetings have recently attracted the attention of high profile district officials. At Monday’s meeting, both superintendent Tom Boasberg and assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson were in attendance.

“We’re here to be part of the discussion and to listen,” Boasberg said. He also tried to allay concerns that the discussion about the school’s future was abbreviated. The meetings kicked off in March and the board planned to make a final decision about which program to place at Manual in the beginning of June, based on the group’s recommendations.

But Boasberg also said that if the Thought Partner process took too long, any school leader would not have the time they needed to craft a plan for Manual. “I think one of the things we didn’t do well enough is allow time for planning back in either 2007 or 2000,” he said, referring to the school’s 2007 closure and re-opening and early-2000’s restructuring, which led to its closure.

The group will continue to meet through the end of the school year. Times and dates are below:

  • Tonight, 6 p.m. in room 106, Manual High School: Presentation of the Manual Plan by Vernon Jones and student leaders.
  • April 15, 5:30 p.m. at Vickers Boys and Girls Club: Presentations by all applicants for Near Northeast schools, including Manual.
  • April 21, 5:30 p.m. at Manual High School (room unknown): Manual Thought Partner meeting (these take place every Monday evening).

For full dates, see here.

Note: the article has been updated to reflect the leadership of the school design working group.

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