A promise unfulfilled : Part 1

After ambitious overhauls, Denver high school sees much change, little progress

The teachers had turned the classroom into an instructional war room. The walls were covered with bar graphs, hand-drawn in magic marker. Yearbook photos appended each graph, showing the faces of the students whose results were on display.

It was late in the afternoon on an early November day, and the staff at Manual High School in northeast Denver had just analyzed the school year’s first round of diagnostic tests, translating scores into predictions of each student’s post-graduation options. The outlook was not good.

“Terrifying,” one teacher observed, looking at the sophomores’ proficiency rates.

If the proficiency trend continued, most of the students, the data forecasted, would not score high enough on the ACT to be accepted into a selective college like the University of Colorado — or even one of the state’s community colleges.

The results were not supposed to be so dire. Eight years ago, Manual High School was the centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts, dramatically shuttered and reopened by the district administration with the promise of turning a long-struggling high-poverty high school into the city’s academic crown jewel.

The reboot was supposed to end the school’s long decline and return it to its place as one of the city’s most beloved campuses, known for its academic excellence and championship-winning basketball team.

But that isn’t the case. Manual is once again the worst-performing high school in the city, as judged by state test scores. By some measures, the school is worse even than it was when the school board voted to shutter its doors in 2006. Instead of symbolizing urban school reform’s promise, the school is now a case study in the all-too-common descent from good intentions to disappointment.

This fall, Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual, interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. Over the next four days, we will explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. We will describe key challenges facing Manual today as it moves forward. And we will explore the role that Manual’s community — students, parents, and a vocal corps of alumni — has played in Manual’s past, present, and future.

The obstacles Manual faces as it once again begins the uphill battle of improving performance include:

  • Tense relations between the school and the district. Through many fits and starts, and three principals in the last seven years, Manual’s relationship with Denver Public Schools has been a constant challenge. Early on, the district offered the school autonomy to hire its own team of teachers and choose its own curriculum and teaching materials. In practice, the principal who first led the turnaround, Rob Stein, found himself getting snared in the district’s bureaucracy. In more recent years, Stein’s successor, current principal Brian Dale, has enjoyed much of the autonomy that Stein fought for but also discovered the downside to that independence: a lack of support and oversight that led to challenges from financial mismanagement to low teacher morale.
  • A revolving leadership door. Manual saw strong gains in test scores under Stein. But after Stein left the school, the search for a new leader was slow and fraught with problems. Waiting for a permanent leader, Denver Public Schools placed administrator Joe Sandoval as a temporary principal. But without a permanent leader, the school lost its forward momentum, and by the time Dale arrived, progress had begun to flag.
  • Finding a consistent instructional approach. Since the mid-1990s, Manual has undergone repeated overhauls to its academic program. Under Stein, the school modeled itself on successful “no excuses” charter schools. Under Dale, the school now aims to turn students into “revolutionaries for social justice.” Many teachers say they long to try a single approach — and stick with it long enough to make it work.
  • Mismanagement of school funds. The school is working to repay a $600,000 debt to the district after leaders overspent their budget last year. The district failed to notice the school dipping into the red until months after the funds were already used for the school’s aggressive year-round model. The financial woes have jeopardized the centerpiece of Manual’s current instructional model — weeks-long cross-country trips designed to enhance the students’ learning and expand their horizons.
  • Reclaiming school culture. School staff are tirelessly working to instill in students a sense that they can be academically successful and can transform their neighborhood — and the world. But they’re battling a years-old stigma established by poor performance and a dramatic school closure. Teachers are exhausted from navigating the tension between the experience of the school and their current aspirations. And even though they trust their teachers, students are tuning out the hopeful message.

All of the challenges add up to a school that has tried many times to improve, with few long-term accomplishments to show for all the hope and hard work.

“Manual is sort of a case study of the classic tragic dark side of reform,” said Van Schoales, head of local advocacy group A+ Denver and a leader in several attempts to reboot the school’s performance. “There were heroic efforts by individuals or community members or others to do stuff and in every instance that I can think of, they were half measures.”

“I’m not learning anything”

One byproduct of the school’s current social-justice focus is that teachers and students are encouraged to think critically about what the school’s struggles mean for their lives.

Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler leads a class discussion. Egeler, like several instructors at Manual, are in their first year.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler leads a class discussion. Egeler, like several instructors at Manual, are in their first year.

Social studies teacher Andrew Egeler has structured a quarter-long unit around the study of oppressed and marginalized communities. One day, in November, one of the communities he asked his students to consider was their own: how is Manual and its low accountability ranking a social justice issue for the community?

Students sat in a haphazard circle while Egeler asked them to consider a variety of questions and give evidence for their answers: How has their community been marginalized? How is Manual different than other schools? Do you believe all kids in Denver have the same opportunities? What, if anything, could the school do to create equity?

Sophomore Nyesha Anderson had a simple request: teach her.

“I’m not learning anything,” she told the class.

“I can try my best with the education Manual gives me,” another student said, agreeing with Anderson. “But it might not be enough.”

A transfer student from Bishop Machebeuf, a private Catholic school in Denver, said responsibility lies with his fellow students.

“So many students don’t have respect for teachers,” he said. “And the teachers don’t know what to do. … We bring it upon ourselves. A lot of people just sit outside and smoke. We do it. It’s self-fulfilling.”

Another noted: “Some people get pushed down — and stay down.”

The following day, in a class a few doors down, a group of ninth grade boys huddled noisily around their teacher, Chris DeRemer, a veteran teacher who had come to the school only recently.

One boy, in a black hoodie, explained the commotion to a reporter. The students were waiting to receive their latest scores on tests designed to predict their end-of-year performance and ultimately their chances of getting into college. They were excited, chatting eagerly about how they thought they did.

But when they saw the scores, the students were dismayed. Some collapsed on their desks in heaps of teenage despair.

“Looks like I’m going to community college,” one boy said. “Can I leave?”

The boy in the black hoodie — the one who’d been chatting warmly just a moment ago — now sat in the back of the room, staring at the paper detailing his scores in silence. When his teacher sat with him to cheer him up, the student didn’t budge. His head slumped to his chest, scores in hand.

DeRemer encouraged them to think of the scores not as a failure but as an opportunity to improve.

“[The score] does not matter yet except where to improve,” he said. But his students loudly bemoaned the fate predicted by their scores.

“I’m never going to college,” said Dayshawn, a small young man in a red hoodie. Under his breath, he added, “I ain’t going to college. I go to Manual.”

More threats to leave or tear up their results followed. But no one followed through. Instead, DeRemer’s students lingered, shushing each other as he talked about what they could do to improve their scores and how to handle the testing environment.

“We have a lot of work to do as teachers,” he told his students.

“The school needs work,” Dayshawn replied.

“Negative time”

The stakes of that work are high. Manual is entering its first year of “turnaround” status, which means the school has five years to improve or the state’s Board of Education, under current law, can recommend a new principal and teaching staff be put in place, be turned over to a charter, or be closed altogether.

English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.

And that’s just the state. Denver Public Schools has the power to make dramatic changes to the school, including changing the school’s leadership at any time. But right now, the district seems poised to take a more conservative approach.

One option the district is considering is moving Manual into its northeast turnaround network, a group of schools that have undergone drastic improvement measures, including phase-outs and charter takeovers. Schools within the network have extended learning time, which Manual already employs, and receive additional support, including weekly visits from district staffers, targeted tutoring efforts in core subjects, data evaluations on measures including internal test scores and attendance, and accountability reports to track the schools’ progress.

According to the district’s innovation leader, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the goal is to provide schools with specialized expertise on dramatically improving their performance.

But nothing is for sure — the move depends on negotiations between the district and school leaders that will play out over the next several months.

This year’s steep drop in test scores has given the school a sense of urgency, according to Rebecca Martinez, one of the school’s instructional coaches, who also directs the school’s experiential learning program. They want the space to prove the instructional model they believe in — an alternative to the more prevalent “no-excuses” model the school once followed. But without support, they worry they will be forced to give up that aspiration, too.

“We have no time,” she said. “We have negative time.”

Although sources within the district said that Manual’s 2006 abrupt closure and re-opening proved a hard lesson about the challenges of closing a school, Manual’s recent academic challenges have once again sparked fears of closure among students and staff.

“Every time [students] see a downward data point, they say we’re closing,” Manual’s assistant principal, Vernon Jones said. The scars of the closure, he said, are still present on the community’s perception of the school.

While many observers still believe the decision to close Manual was the right one, the district has never repeated the process elsewhere and district officials say they’re unlikely to again.

The district has closed other low-performing schools gradually, phasing them out grade by grade as replacement schools phase in.

“We got smarter,” former DPS board president Theresa Peña , who voted in 2006 to shutter the school.

And according to the district, another attempt to close Manual is not even on the table.

“That is 100 percent not a conversation we’re having right now,” said Whitehead-Bust, who oversees Manual and who would be in charge of presenting any plans for change to the school.

But despite the spectre of closure, Jones sees signs of hope amidst the daily chaos.

A group of ninth graders have formed an honors book club. Sophomores have banded together to improve attendance. Groups of seniors spill into the Denver Scholarship Foundation to apply for college.

Administrators and teachers have worked hard to rebuild a warm and caring culture. Although many students remain disruptive, staff address issues with a personal touch, spending hours of their days talking with them and helping them formulate solutions for their problems.

These are the signs Jones points to when he says the school is headed for a new renaissance.

“We’ve come out of the winter of closure,” Jones said. “We’re in the Manual spring.”

On Wednesday, Chalkbeat Colorado looks at the various instructional models Manual has attempted to implement, options spanning the spectrum of ideas about what schools in high-poverty communities need to succeed.

$1 billion

The tension between CPS enrollment declines and new schools

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
The West Loop neighborhood on the Near West Side is booming with new residents and corporate headquarters.

Chicago plans on opening a handful of schools in the next several years. But for whom?

Chicago Public Schools faces a critical decline in enrollment and is closing or phasing out four more schools on the city’s South Side as a result.

Yet the district just unveiled a new $1 billion capital plan that adds schools: an open-enrollment high school on the Near West Side and an elementary school in the Belmont Cragin community on the Northwest Side. That’s in addition to repurposing two old buildings to open classical schools in Bronzeville on the Near South Side and West Eldson on the Southwest Side.

CPS is soliciting feedback about the plan this Thursday ahead of next week’s board of education vote, but community organizers say the proposal shows a bias toward investments in or near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Some complain the new schools will siphon enrollment and resources from current neighborhood options, and worry the schools are an election-year ploy that will exacerbate or enable gentrification. Others contend that the district’s spending still prioritizes white and mixed communities near downtown and on the North Side as opposed to majority black and Latino communities on the South and West sides.

Despite the criticism, and despite declines in city population and enrollment, CPS said it is taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to to creating new schools and academic opportunities. In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS defended its decision to open new schools, despite enrollment declines, by citing community demand. And CPS CEO Janice Jackson told a room of business and nonprofit executives at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, “we can’t do great work without investing” — and not just in school staff, but in buildings themselves.

At a budget hearing later in the day, Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark stressed the money was being allocated “with a great deal of focus on local schools that in the past had legitimate reason to feel that they were not prioritized as they should (be).”

The problem, still, is fewer and fewer families are enrolling their students at CPS.

Enrollment is declining at Chicago Public Schools.

The roughly 371,000 students enrolled at CPS this year is a 15 percent decrease compared with the year 2000, when enrollment topped 435,000, according to CPS data. And there’s no sign the numbers will trend upward soon:  The district projects about 20,000 fewer students to enroll in the next three years. The trends mirror population drops in Chicago, which has about 182,000 fewer residents than it did 18 years ago, according to Census data. More than 220,000 black residents have left since the year 2000.

One expert on neighborhood change in Chicago, Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said building new schools shouldn’t be part of a broad policy given the city’s population declines. However, he said new schools may make sense in certain areas.

“You may see pockets within the city where there’s a very clear difference happening,” he said.

Demographer Rob Paral, who publishes Chicago demographic data on his website, said while the city’s population might be down, some parts of the city that have grown, especially areas that are gentrifying and former white ethnic enclaves transformed by Latinos and immigrants.

“Chicago has got these microclimates when it comes to neighborhood change,” Paral said.

You’ll see what he’s saying in Belmont Cragin, a community just west of one of Chicago’s most popular gentrifying communities, where the population has ballooned as the overall city population has dropped.

A new elementary school for Belmont Cragin

Belmont Cragin is a quiet, working-class neighborhood full of single-family brick bungalows and two-flat apartments. Taquerias, Mexican boutiques, hair salons and auto bodies dominate commercial corridors that used to serve more Polish residents, who are concentrated on the northern end of the community.  Since 1990, Belmont Cragin’s population has increased 40 percent to 80,000 and changed from two-thirds white to 80 percent Latino. Paral said Latinos have moved from communities like Logan Square to the east, where gentrification pushed them out, and replaced aging white populations. Latinos have similarly transformed former enclaves for European immigrants on the Southwest Side, like West Eldson and Gage Park.

CPS said in its statement that community groups and leaders in Belmont Cragin advocated for the elementary school, and that CPS “shares these communities’ vision of expanding high-quality educational opportunities to children of all backgrounds.”

CPS wouldn’t say who in the Belmont Cragin community had asked for a new school. It wasn’t Rosa Reyes or Mariana Reyes (no relation). They said their children’s school, Burbank Elementary, is losing students and needing improvements to its roof, heating and cooling systems. The district labels Burbank, like most schools in Belmont Cragin, as efficiently using its space and not yet suffering  from under-enrollment — yet. Still, its student body is shrinking. Latino enrollment at CPS seems to be falling, too. Experts note that immigrants are coming to the city at much lower rates than in the past when they offset black population loss, and that birth rates have declined across the board. 

The mothers said CPS allowed a Noble Charter Network to open in 2014 that exacerbated enrollment declines at Steinmetz High School, and that the same happened to Burbank in 2013, when an UNO charter elementary opened a few blocks west of the school.

Steadily losing students costs Burbank funding, doled out per-pupil. That’s why they the parents don’t support CPS’ new school proposal.

“It will be taking from the local schools,” Rosa Reyes said.

A push for a Near West Side high school

Drive west from Chicago’s central business district and you’ll pass through the Near West Side, one of the city’s 77 official community areas. However, those official boundaries also contain a racially and economically diverse mix of neighborhoods. East of Ashland, you’ll see the West Loop, home to mostly white and affluent residents, pricy condos, trendy restaurants, and a booming business community that includes corporate headquarters for Google and McDonalds.

But west of Ashland, as you approach the United Center where the Chicago Bulls play, you’ll find more low-income residents, public housing, and African-American residents. Like Belmont Cragin, the Near West Side has witnessed immense population growth in recent decades. White people have flocked to the area, especially the affluent West Loop, while the black population has plummeted. In 1990, about 66 percent of Near West Side residents were black and 19 percent were white. Nearly 20,000 new residents have moved in since then. Today, the Near West Side is 30 percent black and 42 percent white. An analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that most African-Americans leaving Chicago are under 25, and low-income. Alden Loury, the council’s research director, said the city is struggling to retain young black people who might eventually establish families, and that many black Chicagoans have left seeking better job markets, more affordable housing, and higher quality schools.

CPS hasn’t announced where on the Near West Side it will put its proposed $70 million high school – but the community groups calling loudest for it are pro-business groups and neighborhood organizations led by mostly white professionals. The community group Connecting4Communities and the West Loop business organization the West Central Association have advocated for a new high school and see the mayor’s proposal as responsive to the growing community.

“Most of the high schools that people are comfortable sending their children to, the good ones, are selective enrollment,” said Executive Director Dennis O’Neill of Connecting4Communities.

He said that parents whose children don’t test into those schools—Jones College Prep, Whitney M. Young Academic Center, and Walter Payton College Prep —lack an acceptable option.

“Our neighborhood school, Wells, which is nowhere near our neighborhood, is so under-enrolled, and is not [a school] that people feel comfortable sending their children to,” he said. “When people see a school is so woefully under-enrolled, they just don’t have confidence in it.”

Wells Community Academy High School, which sits near the intersection of Ashland and Chicago avenues, also is mostly black and Latino, and mostly low income.

But O’Neill emphasized that high school request isn’t an effort to exclude any groups. He said the groups have a proposal for a new high school that draws on eight feeder schools, including a school serving a public housing development, to ensure the student body reflects the diversity of Chicago.

Loury of the planning council said it makes sense that as the Near West Side grows there’s a desire to satisfy that growing population. However, he found the idea of low enrollment at a predominately black and Latino school amid a boom in white population to be problematic. Parents might avoid sending their children to certain schools for various reasons, but a new building nearby furthers disinvestment in schools struggling to fill seats.

“It’s a pretty classic story in terms of Chicago and the struggles of integration and segregation,” he said.

A classical debate in Bronzeville

When it comes to CPS’ new school plans, line items don’t always mean new buildings, as evidenced by the two classical schools opening in existing structures in West Eldson on the Southwest Side and in Bronzeville on the South Side.  

Bronzeville Classical will open this fall as a citywide elementary selective enrollment school. Classical schools offer a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum to students who must test in. Last year, more than 1,000 students who qualified were turned away for lack of space, according to CPS, which is spending $40 million to expand three existing classical programs elsewhere.

“The district is meeting a growing demand for classical programs by establishing programs in parts of the city that do not have classical schools, like Bronzeville – making this high-quality programming more accessible to students in historically underserved neighborhoods,” the CPS statement read.

A spokeswoman for Alderman Pat Dowell, in whose ward the school is opening, responded to requests to interview the alderman with an emailed statement supporting the new Bronzeville school.

“It provides another quality educational option for families in Bronzeville and other nearby communities,” read the statement. “No longer will children from near south neighborhoods seeking a classical school education have to travel to the far southside, westside or northside for enrollment.”

However, some South Side residents see the classical school as problematic.

Natasha Erskine lives in Washington Heights on the Far South Side, but is Local School Council member at King College Preparatory High School in the Kenwood community near Bronzeville. She has a daughter enrolled at King, a selective enrollment high school. Before that, her daughter was in a gifted program at a nearby elementary school. Erskine supports neighborhood schools, but struggled finding schools that offered the kind of field trips and world language instruction many selective enrollment schools offer.

“I see the disparity, because it’s one we participate in it whether I like it or not,” she said.

Bronzeville is a culturally rich neighborhood known as Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” where black migrants from the South forged a vibrant community during the Great Migration, building their own banks, businesses and cultural institutions.

And it retains a resilient core of committed black residents, but has suffered some decline and lost population like other black neighborhoods.  The community area that contains Bronzeville and Douglas has lost about half of its black population since 1990.

But Bronzeville is adjacent to the gentrified South Loop, which is grown increasingly white in recent years. And it’s a short drive  from Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to be built. Paral, like other observers, predicts the Bronzeville is one of the areas between the South Loop and the Obama Library that will be further gentrified in coming years.

Jitu Brown, a longtime Chicago education organizer and community leader who heads the Journey for Justice Alliance, believes that the investments are an attempt to attract more white families to areas at a time when low-income people and African-Americans are being priced out and leaving the city. Brown added that creating more selective-enrollment schools is a different type of segregation: “You’re segregating talent.”

On Thursday, the district will solicit feedback about the spending plan via simultaneous public hearings at three different sites, Malcolm X College, Kennedy-King College, and Truman College. Here are the details.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District