Boasberg: Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility

Denver’s superintendent took full responsibility for the lackluster academic performance at a high school the district once promised would be the envy of reform efforts across the nation.

“I own all of it,” Tom Boasberg said in an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “I’m the leader of the school district. And Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility.”

Manual High School, deemed failing in 2006, had a brief academic renaissance after a dramatic re-boot in 2007. But last year, Manual was ranked Denver Public Schools lowest-performing high school after freshmen and sophomores posted historically low results on state standardize tests. By some measures, the school’s academic performance is worse than before the school was shuttered.

Earlier this month, Chalkbeat Colorado published a series of articles about Manual, a school that serves mostly poor and minority students, detailing the well-intentioned reform efforts that often went awry.

Late last week, Manual’s leader Brian Dale, the third since the school re-opened, was fired after he refused to resign his principalship and take another position within the district, said DPS board member Landri Taylor.

Boasberg declined to comment on Dale’s exit, but said, “We were concerned that some of those critical success factors weren’t as strong as they needed to be. And we weren’t seeing fast enough progress toward those success factors.”

Manual, the first school that was re-booted in Denver’s modern reform movement, has been a learning experience for Boasberg.

Without naming Dale or any of the specific circumstances that have lead Manual and the district to this moment, Boasberg addressed some of the lessons he’s learned: “In a turnaround school situation it’s very important to have an experienced — a proven — school leader, that the district needs to be better and more thoughtful about its supports for its schools including providing key flexibilities for our schools. And that, when we are doing a turnaround school, its very important to have more time to plan for the opening of that school to get it right from the beginning.”

Boasberg also declined to compare Dale to his successor, Don Roy, who was most recently principal of Hill Campus of the Arts Middle School.

“I’m not going to get into a comparison about individuals,” Boasberg said. “But, I think it’s fair to say, the key to success for every school leader is really having a strong set of teachers who work very well together as a team, and having clear and high expectations around what’s necessary for kids, making sure kids really understand and appreciate the expectations adults have for them, having a very clear and intentional culture, and making sure teachers are getting the kind of feedback and coaching they need to grow as teachers.”

Members of the Manual community have been skeptical of the transition.

One parent, Nina Adams, said of Dale, “That man had love for this community — this school. It’s like taking away our heart.”

Precise details on Manual’s future are still unknown. However, the school will not be shut down again, and the district is planning a number of meetings between students, parents and community members in the coming weeks, Boasberg said.

“Are there programmatic changes or improvements [that can be made]? Those questions should be on the table,” Boasberg said.

But the level of interaction between the school — which is allowed to make its own budget, hire its own teachers and design its own curriculum because of an “innovation agreement” — and the district is likely to increase.

“It’s extraordinarily important to have very strong support and [collaboration] with school leaders in our schools,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg said the district’s intervention and next steps will be based on “a lot of evidence and a lot of experience on what works best in schools and what doesn’t work in schools.”

CEO of the education advocacy organization A+ Denver Van Schoales said the district was right to take action.

“I wish that they had done this in the fall,” Schoales said. “They had the data they needed. In order to really stop the bleeding, they’re going to need to have amazing instructional coaches. The district needs to provide an extra level of resources above and beyond anything they’ve done in the past.”