Jen Strasheim was nervous when she first found out her son would be attending Manual High School.
“There’s some stuff on the internet that makes you go, ‘Oh my god, I’m not sending my kid there,” Strasheim said. But after watching from the sidelines for the school’s freshman academy, a three-day program that involved a combination of pep talks and practical preparation for the coming year, her fears had calmed.
“I can’t tell you how amazing it is,” she said.
The academy is just one of a host of changes at the school, where declining academics and mismanaged budget led to a high-profile mid-year change in school leaders.
District officials announced plans to introduce a still undefined overhaul of the school, potentially as soon as next year. If those plans go forward, it would be the fourth attempted transformation of the troubled school in the past decade.
The fallout from the school’s public troubles has trickled down to the prospective students. The number of students slated to attend the school this fall dropped by more than third from previous years. As of this week, just 70 students were projected to enroll at Manual as freshman, compared with 145 last October.
And the roughly 17 students who showed up to freshman academy said they were well aware of the school’s issues.
But most were more nervous about the challenges that face ninth graders across the district: will I make my friends? Will my work be hard? How will I find my classes? Chalkbeat spoke with students and their families about what they anticipate for the coming year.
Caroline Herrera, who will be a freshman at Manual this fall, sat with her friend Monica Villanueva in the cafeteria. Both students attended Whittier K-8 School and were among the 49 students who assigned to Manual automatically because they did not submit a form in time to pick a different school during the district’s school choice process.
The two girls said they’d been warned off the school, due to its low performance, but decided to go anyway.
Herrera: [I told my parents] It doesn’t matter who goes there and what people say about it. We’ll go and find out for ourselves.
Herrera was intimidated by the transition to high school but she was more worried about her social nerves.
Herrera: I did OK in middle school but I’m worried about high school…I’m not a talkative person. I’m nervous about fitting in with people. Yesterday we talked about how some people would act like clowns.
But Manual’s shrinking student body could prove an unexpected boon to Villanueva.
Villanueva: I’m shy so I’m glad it’s a smaller school.
Jen Strasheim and her 15-year old son just moved to Denver from Littleton and she now lives just 10 blocks from Manual. Despite her initial hesitation, she hoped Manual would prove to be a good school for her son.
Jen Strasheim: I was talking to [Fernando Branch, the assistant principal] and he was saying there are two paths at Manual, the A track and the B track…You don’t see teachers trying to connect with students [at other schools]. A lot of kids say they’re the best teachers they’ve had.
Besides, she said, the message her son gets at home will be important too.
Jen Strasheim: I’m his mom. I’m going to be there every step of the way. He’s got to stay on the right track or he won’t like being at home (laughs).
Jeremiah Strasheim was less worried about the school’s reputation. He had never attended a school with three floors and the prospect of losing his way made him nervous.
Jeremiah Strasheim: Just, like, getting lost. Last year, I went to a pretty big middle school. I got my huge schedule and I asked one of the teachers where my classroom was. He said, You should know that. I was so late.
And the phantom of schoolwork and tests is already hanging over his head, with older students warning him to get ready to work hard.
Elijah [Huff], a junior, took the ACT and he said it was the hardest test he’s taken. He said to prepare and to get help.
The students he talked to also told him to tread carefully during the first heady days of school, as he finds his social group.
[Students] were saying, Make new friends but be careful. You don’t want them to choose for you.