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Manual’s principal-to-be: “Changing the narrative” at a school that’s close to home

Nickolas Dawkins grew up six blocks away from Manual High School. This summer, he’ll be returning to his old neighborhood as the school’s principal.

Dawkins is stepping into the spotlight: Manual is the district’s lowest-performing high school and has been subject to a series of reforms and leadership changes in recent years. Dawkins’ appointment is part of the district’s newest effort to turn the school around.

Dawkins has been principal at southeast Denver’s Hamilton Middle School for two years. He was the Education Center’s principal of the year in 2014. Before that, he worked as a teacher at South High School, an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School, and an assistant principal and principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College.

Below, Dawkins talks with Chalkbeat about his path to a career in education, his plans for Manual, and building relationships with teachers and the community.

How did you get into education?

I’m a DPS graduate, I went to East High School. But this road for me was started by a really hard time in my own schooling. In my sophomore year I lost a parent. You can imagine my world was rocked. There were some key educators who became instrumental in my life, including one who is kind of like a godmother. She made sure I graduated—she actually drove me down to Metro [State University] to make sure I got to class…. Through that, I decided to go into teaching. And through the process of teaching, and having successes, I was able to earn a scholarship to Oxford University. I really came back jazzed about the idea of providing a really high level education to students, because I hadn’t had any exposure to that kind of education at that level. That’s when I began to think about school leadership.

Nick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School, will be principal at Manual High starting next school year.

Nick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School, will be principal at Manual High starting next school year.

via Nick Dawkins

Why Manual in particular?

I’m not just a principal who wants to be at any school. I didn’t just want to be a principal to be a principal. I thought back to my own upbringing during those tough times, when there was certainly a sense for many of us who grew up with single mothers…we had a feeling of, does anyone care that we’re struggling down here? We often felt like, I wish you would come back and help us out here. That certainly became a memory for me again when I began to see the student protests this winter. Here we are again where we see our youth feeling like they don’t matter very much. A lot of that was on my mind. I was wanting to follow my heart and say, I feel confident that I can be a leader for these kids. And what a story for them to know that we do come back for the community. I’ve always been a believer in the restorative nature of education, the way it can restore communities and bring people together. What an opportunity it would be to go back and try to help.

Can you talk a bit about equity at Manual?

I want to make sure our kids know, stats don’t define who they are. They can write their own story. It comes through hard work,education and relationships. Making sure there’s something who’s willing to hold you accountable. If you look at my resume, I talk about closing achievement gaps. That’s very important to me.

You’re coming into a school that’s been under a lot of scrutiny, and people have a lot of opinions about what happens to it. How do you as a leader build relationships with those stakeholders?

We have so many people who have so much vested interest. We can’t do everything at the same time, but we can focus on some key areas of common ground, and try to do it well from the outset. The thought partners [a community group focused on Manual] have put forth some ideas that are very exciting, and I’m just getting into those. I can’t talk specifically about what emerges out of that work… We’ll likely host a common grounds process, which was very successful for me at Hamilton, where we’re able to get a diverse group of opinions and thoughtful partners into the same room for a consistent amount of time.

What would you say to people who question whether you’ve had sufficient experience to become principal at this school?

I feel like my experiences have given me a very unique set of leadership skills and capabilities. While I appreciate the question of, hey, is he high-school ready, middle school was newer for me than high school. My background has been exclusively high school with the exception of Hamilton. So I certainly feel prepared in that regard. I have also worked with a similar student population before. I’ve been in the neighborhood. Also, as far as the size of the school, I run a school of 900 kids, that’s co-located so we’re closer to 1000. Manual’s about the size of one of my grade levels. That isn’t to make light of the challenge at Manual. But I have had experiences with very large schools. And I feel up to the challenge.

What’s your philosophy about how the school will run, its model? Manual has seen a No Excuses philosophy, it’s seen a social justice bent… 

So my approach is simply one that every kid matters and that we come together to put our best work forward to make sure every kid succeeds. No Excuses is something I’m familiar with. I think social justice is important too. I think it’s really a combination. But really my philosophy is, we work relentlessly, we work our hardest, and we put kids first.

What about discipline?

A restorative approach is very important to schools—to get at restoring the community when harm is done. I’m a big believer in that, but I’m also a big believer that we need to have a safe learning environment, and students first means safety first. Discipline is a really challenging thing. You’re often weighing the needs of one student against the whole community. That’s a hard balancing act. We’re trying to fight this battle of keeping kids in schools, but at the same time, if you’re doing that and you don’t put the right layers of systems in place, it can be perceived as, kids aren’t being held accountable.

What else should we know about your plans for Manual?

I’m really excited and continue to think that we should dream big. I’m looking forward to enhancing a narrative from a school that’s been having hard times to a school that’s on an upward trajectory and where kids can be found being wildly successful.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.