One of Denver’s oldest and most storied high schools is losing a program that former students said boosted their confidence and changed the trajectory of their lives.
The junior ROTC program at Manual High School will be transferred in the fall to Northfield High, a bigger school serving a wealthier community. Manual alumni said they are heartbroken at the prospect of losing 1st Sgt. Eric Posey, who has taught JROTC at Manual for 15 years. They describe him as a humble leader who pushed them to do better.
Posey teaches JROTC in a way that is inclusive of all students, including those with disabilities, alumni said. Past performance reviews describe him as irreplaceable, a paragon of an Army instructor, and a dedicated and beloved teacher who’s “at the core of the Manual family.” When a supervisor who was not supposed to rate Posey inserted a negative comment into a recent performance review, Posey filed a grievance — and won.
“A lot of us are very thankful that 1st Sgt. was our rock in the times of turmoil,” said Ariana Villalovos, who graduated from Manual in 2016 as valedictorian and is now an educator in Aurora. “He’s such a great support, and losing him is going to be a big, low blow to the school.“
JROTC is a joint program between the U.S. Army and the school district. The purpose is to teach students values such as leadership, teamwork, and self-discipline. Schools request JROTC programs, and the Army decides whether to grant them. Instructors like Posey are retired military members who are certified to teach by the Army but hired by schools.
The director of Army instruction for Denver Public Schools, Lt. Col. Retired Kevin Black, said the district decided to move Manual’s JROTC program after Army officials said they were unlikely to grant Denver a new program for Northfield because Manual’s program was under enrolled. They suggested Denver instead relocate Manual’s program to Northfield, Black said.
At least two Denver school board members, Tay Anderson and Scott Esserman, have concerns about the move. Anderson is a 2017 Manual graduate and alumnus of the school’s JROTC program. Esserman’s daughter graduated from Manual last year.
“It doesn’t feel well thought out,” said Esserman, whose daughter did not participate in JROTC. “It feels and appears and smells of institutional racism.”
Manual’s student body is 95% Black and Hispanic, and 75% of students qualify for subsidized school meals, an indicator of poverty. At Northfield, located eight miles away, 55% of students are students of color, and only 31% qualify for subsidized meals.
There are other differences between the schools. Northfield is Denver’s newest comprehensive high school, having opened in 2015 with a focus on offering rigorous International Baccalaureate classes to all students. Manual, meanwhile, opened in 1894 with a focus on teaching students trades. In recent decades, its students endured frequent program changes, a traumatic school closure, and recurrent leadership changes.
“This is the sort of trauma we’re talking about trying to get rid of,” Anderson said of the JROTC decision. “People should not feel as if we are making decisions about them without them. They should feel like we’re collaborating with them. That hasn’t happened. People are rightfully hurt.”
Manual is losing its JROTC program because of enrollment, Black said. Manual is a smaller school with about 315 students this year, compared to Northfield’s nearly 1,600. Though Manual started this year with 112 students in the JROTC program, only 57 remain.
JROTC regulations say a high school’s program must have at least 100 students or 10% of the student population enrolled. At 57 students, Manual’s program exceeds the 10% threshold.
But Black said 57 students isn’t enough for a thriving program in which juniors and seniors mentor sophomores and freshmen, nor does the program have enough students to field competitive teams in JROTC events such as color guard and air rifle. Denver Public Schools’ 10 other JROTC programs all have more than 100 students enrolled, Black said.
“We’re not reaching as many students [at Manual] as we could if we were in a program as big as Northfield,” Black said. “Without students to participate, then the program just basically falls apart.”
Manual Principal Joe Glover said he agreed with the recommendation to relocate the JROTC program, but stressed it wasn’t his decision.
“I don’t want to lose anything at Manual that adds value to our students,” Glover said. “But given the current enrollment and the current state of the JROTC program and the ability to serve a larger amount of students in the district, it seemed like the best decision for all students.”
Posey disagrees that his program is falling short. Manual has repeatedly earned the highest accreditation rating a JROTC program can receive, including this year.
Instead, Posey said he believes the move is in retaliation for him challenging his 2019-20 performance rating. Though his direct supervisor rated him “excellent,” Black’s predecessor in the role of director of Army instruction for Denver Public Schools wrote that Posey was “not an elite performer.” In a meeting, the former director told Posey it was because the Manual team “never wins” JROTC competitions, according to an arbitration decision.
The arbitrator found in favor of Posey, who as a Denver Public Schools instructor is a member of the teachers union. Per a memorandum of understanding between JROTC instructors and the district, the former director of Army instruction was not authorized to evaluate Posey. In addition, the arbitrator found the director’s comment was not justified.
The former director seemed “to be attempting to unilaterally import unnecessary military standards into a civilian secondary school,” the arbitrator wrote, which was “wholly inappropriate” and out of line with the educational mission of JROTC.
Posey said he has repeatedly clashed with supervisors because he doesn’t treat students like soldiers. If a student comes to his class in a bad mood, Posey tries to get at the root of the behavior rather than demanding a change: Are they tired? Upset about something at home?
“We’re not the Army. We’re more like a civics class,” Posey said. “When I pushed to say, ‘We want every child. Every child deserves an opportunity,’ sometimes I get pushback on that.
“It’s not about winning [JROTC competitions],” he added. “It’s about giving students the opportunity to participate. The true learning comes in their participation.”
Darell Burton said if it weren’t for Posey, he wouldn’t have graduated from Manual. When he joined JROTC, Burton said he would often skip school or leave early. Posey made sure Burton went to class — and when he struggled with Shakespeare in English class, Posey helped him understand it and motivated him to write the essay that allowed him to pass.
“No matter what is going on, he’s always looking toward the positive side,” Burton said.
Danielle Nicholas joined JROTC her sophomore year because it was one of two electives that fit her schedule and she didn’t want to take music class. She wasn’t expecting to like JROTC, but she said Posey’s mentorship changed that — and her attitude toward school.
“He wasn’t there putting me down,” Nicholas said. “He was there lifting me up, giving me advice, letting me know how life was, that I needed school and I needed to finish.”
Benito Zamora remembers Posey as a stable influence during a tumultuous time at Manual. Zamora was part of the first group of students to attend Manual after it reopened in 2007. He said he was a defiant freshman who excelled in class but “didn’t care enough.” Posey understood that and motivated him to become a leader, Zamora said.
“He was teaching us about life and how to treat people,” Zamora said. “He’s very humble but respectful. Even though I’d try to push his buttons, he never really took to it.”
Alumni and community members said they hope Denver Public Schools and JROTC will reconsider the decision to move Manual’s program to Northfield. Posey, who is one of the longest-running teachers at Manual, hopes so, too. He could apply for the instructor position at Northfield, but since winning his grievance, he said his supervisor has put him on a “performance improvement plan,” which lessens his likelihood of getting hired.
“I’m going to go down swinging,” Posey said.
“This is wrong on every level, and our kids don’t deserve it.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.