thunderbolts in transition

Manual High School’s next leader to be named, advisory panel behind career education option

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler led a class discussion in 2013.

Denver school officials will solidify the direction of the district’s neediest high school in the coming weeks when they introduce the next principal at Manual High School. But some parents and community members aren’t sure they’ll be part of the welcome wagon.

Manual parents and community members met with two finalists, Nickolas Dawkins and Robert Kelly Jr., Monday evening. The candidates will meet with Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg next week for a final interview.

Meanwhile, a community committee assembled to advise Denver Public Schools officials on how to move the school forward has issued its final report.

The committee, made up of Manual alumni, parents, staff, and community members, has endorsed a career and technical program where students can earn biomedical training and certificates.

Some committee members also stressed their hope, despite Manual’s low enrollment, the school will continue to offer a comprehensive education to students that includes music and the arts.

“We feel like the Manual of today is strong, is moving in a wonderful direction, has a lot of momentum,” said Karen Mortimer, a member of the committee and DPS parent. “It’s not a school that needs to be unplugged. It’s a school that needs to be supported in its continued excellence.”

Yet as the next chapter for Manual is coming into focus, some community members and parents are raising concerns about the principal candidates’ qualifications and the school’s new biomedical career track.

About the finalists

Dawkins is principal at Hamilton Middle School in Denver. Kelly is an assistant principal at Overland High School in Aurora.

Dawkins grew up in Denver, graduated from East High School, and later taught English at South High School.

In 2009, he was an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School as part of the University of Denver’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders.

He then spent two years as a principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College as part of the district’s leadership program, Learn to Lead.

Since 2012, he has been the principal at Hamilton Middle School, which has about 900 students.

According to Dawkins’ resume, he managed a $4.1 million budget, launched a program that gave every student a laptop, and raised the school’s performance rating to green, a status that indicates the school is meeting the district’s expectations.

Kelly is a graduate for the University Of Alaska-Anchorage. He began teaching physical education in Anchorage in 1995. He also coached a variety of sports teams including wrestling, track, football, and soccer.

According to his resume, he moved to Colorado in 2006 to become the athletic director and assistant principal at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County.

In 2007, Kelly moved to the Cherry Creek School District to become an assistant principal at Overland High School, which has more than 2,000 students. There he took a role in instruction and teacher evaluations. He has also been the school’s assessment coordinator. He developed an intervention program for at-risk students. And he launched two leadership programs for male students.

Both Hamilton and Overland are racially diverse schools. About half the students at both schools qualify for federally-subsidized lunches. Manual’s population is predominately black or Latino. Nearly three-fourths of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Neither Dawkins nor Kelly responded to requests for interviews.

Not afraid of the spotlight

A lot of hard work awaits Manual’s next leader. It is the city’s lowest performing high school.

Not only will the new principal need to drastically boost student achievement and roll out a new program intended to help students develop expertise in the medical field, he’ll also need to win over students, parents, faculty, district officials, and a fiercely protective group of alumni and community supporters.

At times, those constituencies haven’t seen eye-to-eye.

“We’re looking for someone who has the right skills to engage and engender buy in of community,” said Susana Cordova, Denver’s chief schools officer. “We’re looking for someone who is able to articulate and build on vision for the school and do that in collaboration with stakeholders. We’re looking for someone who is not afraid to be in the spotlight.”

Manual has been a hotbed of reform efforts since the mid-1990s. In 2006, the school was shut down for a year when Denver Public Schools attempted to reboot Manual, which sits in a historically black northeast portion of Denver. The reform efforts led by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, now the state’s senior U.S. senator, was subject of a New Yorker profile.

While test scores improved for a short time, a leadership transition in 2010 meant a slip in academic rigor and culture. In 2014, then-principal Brian Dale was fired after he overspent the school’s budget by more than $600,000 without improving test results. Don Roy, a Denver middle school principal was named as Dale’s successor and charged with steadying the school. Roy’s tenure will end at the conclusion of the school year.

DPS officials announced this fall they were searching for a new principal at Manual High School. The news came as the district abandoned a plan to merge Manual with nearby East High School.

Cordova said whomever the district chooses to lead Manual will be working closely with his direct supervisor to ensure the school’s culture and academic rigor — which reportedly have been improving under Roy — don’t backslide. The district, she said, has put an emphasis on coaching not just teachers, but principals as well.

Some in the Manual community are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming leadership transition.

“Manual has been screwed a lot — starting with those boundary lines — but I feel like the district is taking a little more ownership,” said Lainie Hodges, a Manual alumni who served on the Manual Thought Partner committee.

Processing the process

Not all members of the Manual committee are convinced DPS has turned over a new leaf when it comes to Manual. A vocal group of parents who share a strong bond with former Manual assistant principal Vernon Jones, whose contract was not renewed this fall, have been raising concerns about how DPS has positioned Manual for the future.

Parent Courtney Torres, a member of the community advisory group, said she left the committee because she felt the process was only for show.

“From my point of view, [my participation] wasn’t beneficial for me or my students,” Torres said.

She also took offense to DPS suggesting a program to track students into the medical careers and not college.

“I think the reason I chose Manual was because it was a college prep,” Torres said. “It’s oxymoronic to call Manual a college prep school and offer [career programs]. College prep is when you’re preparing students to think critically, to learn with books, to engage in conversation. But when you track kids into giving kids medical assistance and technician certificates — that’s the opposite of college prep.”

Both Mortimer and Cordova stressed that the biomedical track, which will be paid in part by a grant from the Kaiser Foundation, will be optional.

Parent Jason Janz said he is concerned that Monday’s parent meeting with the principal finalists appeared to be thrown together at the last minute with little notice to parents. He also expressed concern the candidates were not asked demanding questions.

“Both [candidates] are very likable individuals,” Janz said. “They’re passionate about education. But as a community, we only had 20 minutes to hear them talk. The questions were all scripted — I call them, ‘do you like children questions.'”

District officials did send out a letter announcing the forum. But the date was changed due to a scheduling conflict one of the candidates had. A district spokesman said three automated phone calls were placed alerting parents to the change in time. The district also posted notices on the school’s Facebook page.

Hodges, who helped organize the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, disagreed with some of Janz’s claims.

“Any rumor that hardball questions weren’t asked is just wrong,” she said.

Audience members were asked only to submit questions that both candidates could respond do. Participants were also able to ask both candidates individual questions afterward for about 45 minutes, she said.

Janz also said he is uneasy about the candidates’ qualifications: Neither has been a principal at a high school before.

“If you think every assistant principal is cut out to be a principal, you probably also think Sarah Palin or Joe Biden could run this country,” Janz said.

Cordova, DPS’s chief school officer, wouldn’t respond directly to those concerns, but said she had faith in a hiring process that included input and a review of applicants by multiple groups including Manual’s Collaborative School Committee, a formal body made up of parents, teachers, and community members.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.