Building Better 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.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.