Future of Schools

Special Report: A promise unfulfilled at Manual High School

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High School students pass through the halls in between classes. The five minutes students are supposed to have between each class can sometimes stretch to 10 or 15 cutting into instruction time.

The Manual High School community has been promised — a lot.

Since the mid-1990s, the school has been a laboratory for well-intentioned reform efforts aimed to better educate the school’s mostly poor and minority student population. But every effort, including a dramatic closure and reboot in 2006, has failed to sustain even the most modest progress.

This fall, Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual, interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. In four parts, we 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.

A Manual High School student reviews his class assignment. Students did so poorly on last year's state exams, district officials believe Manual ninth graders lost more ground than at any other high school.
A Manual High School student reviews his class assignment. Students did so poorly on last year’s state exams, district officials believe Manual ninth graders lost more ground than at any other high school.

Part 1: Much change, little success

Eight years ago, Manual High School was the centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts. But once again, Manual is the lowest-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.

Manual students, left, check their work with English teacher Olivia Jones, right. Jones, like several teachers at Manual, are just starting out.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual students, left, check their work with English teacher Olivia Jones, right. Jones, like several teachers at Manual, are just starting out.

Part 2: Conflicting views on path forward

The shifts that Manual has undergone in the last several years reflect a tug-of-war in the education reform world. Reformers are divided between those who place their faith in the power of good teaching to transform student performance and those who point to the overwhelming impact out-of-school factors have on student performance. For the second group, change will have to extend beyond teaching, to systemic and societal overhauls.

Instructional coach Rebecca Martinez leads a professional development meeting at Manual High School. Martinez was originally hired to lead the school's experiential learning program, which is now in jeopardy after the school overspent it's budget last year.
Instructional coach Rebecca Martinez leads a professional development meeting at Manual High School. Martinez was originally hired to lead the school’s experiential learning program, which is now in jeopardy after the school overspent its budget last year.

Part 3: Missteps, red tape, lax oversight

Denver Public Schools has repeatedly taken actions to make it more difficult for Manual’s staff to focus on their charge of building a strong school culture and boosting student achievement. The school district forced a rushed planning process to get the school off the ground, lost one school leader, and took a full school year to find a replacement, in the process leaving a vacuum that siphoned away early academic progress.

A Manual student skateboards across an entrance in December. Students are aware of how far behind they are, but constant 'nagging' has left many students dis-interested in learning.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
A Manual student skateboards across an entrance in December. Students are aware of how far behind they are, but constant ‘nagging’ has left many students uninterested in learning.

Part 4: Community is a resource, paradox

Over the years, as educators have worked to improve Manual, parents and the school’s broader local community have been a valuable resource, helping the school raise money, mentoring students and advocating for the school’s future. But with different understandings of the school’s strengths, educators and community members have often clashed over what Manual really needs.

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”

inner circle

With Earth, Wind and Fire tune, Chicago’s first chief equity officer announces new job

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Earth, Wind and Fire in 1982

It’s little surprise that the public announcement of Chicago’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney, came over Twitter. Last Friday, he announced his new job with an animated image of the iconic disco band Earth, Wind, and Fire performing the tune that made Sept. 21 famous.

Like his boss, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, Swinney comes from the ranks of spirited Chicago principals and has an affinity for the social media platform. Swinney, the principal of Tilden Career Academy in Fuller Park on the South Side, now moves up the ranks to a cabinet-level job, and will head the four-person Equity Office with a $1 million budget.  

Jackson told Chalkbeat over the summer that the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be how to narrow gaps in test scores and academic achievement between black and Latino students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

Priorities would include diversifying the district’s workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the schools chief also emphasized then that it was too early to chart a course for the new equity office before filling the job.

Read more: Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

Before moving to Chicago in 2012 to lead Tilden, Swinney was an associate principal at St. Amand High School, a majority-white school in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.

The choice signals growing attention from Chicago Public Schools’ central office on the issue of neighborhood schools. Last week, the district announced that neighborhood schools would get first priority in a new investment: expanding International Baccalaureate programs.

Tilden, whose student population is mostly black and Latino, is a struggling neighborhood school that illustrates many of the inequities so pervasive in the school system. It has fewer than 300 students in a building built for 2,000. Slightly more than half of its students graduate, compared with the district’s five-year rate of 78 percent. One in three enrolls in college.

Swinney’s appointment comes at a time when neighborhood schools are being squeezed by school choice, with students increasingly leaving their ZIP codes to attend schools across the city. Tilden is among a group of high schools that face additional pressure, with declining enrollment and newer charters and other options nearby.

Plans to open a South Loop high school are just the latest threat. Chicago’s Board of Education is set to vote on a boundary proposal Wednesday that would lop off attendance in its northern zone.  

On Friday, Jackson sent a letter announcing Swinney’s promotion to district staff. The letter touted “historic gains” at the school district but acknowledged “that an opportunity gap persists for some students,” that demands the district examine itself to identify and root out inequity “whether in resources, staffing, academic supports, social and emotional supports, or access to high-quality programs.”

She noted that Swinney, who has led Tilden since 2012, has been recognized for his emphasis on social emotional learning and postsecondary success by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s To And Through Project, which focuses on ensuring students enroll in and finish college.

Jackson’s letter to staff stressed that, beyond the new equity office, every educator in the city shares “a collective responsibility” to build a diverse workforce for the district and increase equity in resource allocation for all students and schools.