As struggling school tries to improve, conflicting views on best path forward

Teacher Ben Butler was optimistic when Brian Dale became principal at Manual High School in 2011.

The school had been without a leader for a year, ever since the principal who spearheaded its turnaround, Rob Stein, had stepped down. And while Stein’s tight ship had come with improved test scores, some parents and students also longed for more traditional high school trappings.

What Dale proposed was a contrast to Stein’s style: Instead of embracing the “no-excuses” model that is increasingly popular in high-poverty schools, Dale focused on skills that he believed were more important than test-taking. Teachers would design lessons that students could relate to. They would use the rhetoric of revolution to discuss the stakes around improving students’ performance.

The new direction appealed to Butler, then a substitute teacher and football coach who now teaches language arts at the school.

“If I had to choose between letting a young adult grow into a good test taker or a self-reliant individual,” he said, “I’d take the self-reliance.”

But three years later, Manual is again the lowest-performing high school in Denver: Last year students scored so low on state standardized tests, the results eroded almost every academic gain the school had made since it re-opened. And Butler increasingly wonders whether a school that focuses on social justice would accomplish that mission better if it paid more focused attention to boosting test scores.

“[What] if we could say our revolution with math is increasing math scores?” said Butler.

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.

Stein represented the first group. Dale belongs to the second. But Manual’s future might well hinge on coming up with a third.

Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual this fall interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. This week, we explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. (Read Part 1 here.)

“More KIPP than KIPP”

Stein’s career spanned a wide array of schools, so it was hardly inevitable that he would bring the “no excuses” model to Manual. But with a mandate from the district to boost scores, Stein modeled his program on high-performing charter networks such as KIPP, where lessons are scripted, performance data is scrutinized, and discipline is strict.

“We looked at better schools with similar student populations and emulated them,” said Stein, who came to Manual from an elite private school. Staff members visited schools around the country and observed their classrooms and internal operations. Denver charters “STRIVE and DSST were very strong influences on how we opened up,” Stein said.

Stein and his staff designed a structure that rewarded test scores, tracked students for college success, and created clear guidelines for behavior, like the charter schools they had observed. Students were required to wear uniforms, were subject to strict behavior rules, and received cash payments for boosting their test scores.

“I remember walking into the school three or four months after it opened,” said Van Schoales, leader of education advocacy group A+ Denver. “It [was] more KIPP-like than KIPP.”

Stein’s leadership had a soft side, too. Staff who worked under him — including Butler and Mario Giardello — said they were included in decision-making, and staff applied their data systems to monitor students’ personal stresses and intervene when challenges emerged. And Stein said it was classroom instruction, not all the rules, that most made the difference for students.

“We really knew that kids needed lots of emotional support and lots of structure,” Stein said. “A lot of it was just really good teaching. We had a very specific instructional model that we wanted to see in every classroom.”

Consistency was important, he said. His mission was to find what worked well and own it.

“What we did not want to do was innovate,” said Stein. The pressure was on. Manual in 2007 “was not a place to experiment on kids.”

Looking for “different results”

In the three years Stein led Manual, the school’s scores improved and the school culture was beginning to take shape. But Stein had tired of battling with Denver’s school bureaucracy over how he was running the school and left without seeing his first class of students graduate. Since leaving, he has taken an administrative position at a district where he would get to help principals do what he felt he had been unable to.

The position wasn’t permanently filled until a year after Stein announced his departure and in the interim, much of his staff drifted away from the school. His permanent replacement, Dale, has moved away from much of Stein’s vision and replaced many of his structures in favor of a new approach.

“We take our innovation status very seriously,” Dale said, referring to an agreement brokered with the district under the 2008 innovation schools law. “They want us to innovate.”

The school’s vision now looks beyond “college and career” to say that “graduates will be the scholars and revolutionaries that our society needs to abolish inequalities.”

“We realized, to get different results than [historical] results, we’d have to do something different,” Dale said.

Gone are the uniforms and the laser-focus on test scores. In their place: nearly year-round study, with three-week summer and winter breaks, and a social justice focus to all academic courses.

Manual High School students embrace in the school’s hall. The school’s model invokes restorative justice. (Marc Piscotty)

As for discipline, the school uses a restorative justice model rather than a punitive one. When a student disrupts class, rather than punish them, the school asks teachers to resolve their issues through organized discussions.

Teachers are evaluated primarily on how they collaborate with other teachers and the collective content test scores, and  on how well and how seamlessly they incorporate social justice concepts into their teaching.

The school’s biggest selling point is its experiential learning program, where every student goes on five weeklong trips a year designed to enhance their in-class learning and broaden their purview.

“We want to give students a real reason to become academically proficient,” said Rebecca Martinez, Manual’s instructional coach. “The vision is beyond career ready.”

Martinez and her team spend countless hours with teachers and content teams to develop quarter-long instructional arcs that lead to weeklong trips to places like Memphis, Tenn. and Little Rock, Ark.

The model is a dramatic departure from Stein’s academics-first approach but is not without precedent. But few schools with similar strategies serve as disadvantaged a population as Manual.

In New York City, for instance, School of the Future High School focuses on collaborative learning and students’ self-respect. But the school’s student population is far more economically diverse than Manual’s. The school’s progress on closing the achievement gap for English language learners and other groups is half the citywide average for high schools, according to graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes.

At Manual, Dale’s social justice model has failed to produce even the results his predecessor’s stricter program did. The full rollout of the model last year resulted in the school’s poorest showing on state tests since it reopened.

Flaws exposed

While Dale’s softer model has won support from neighborhood parents, last year’s test scores revealed weaknesses in Dale’s vision and how he has implemented it. External impediments also plagued the model, an issue which will be explored tomorrow.

Many teachers struggled to apply the social justice lens, especially in fields like math that do not lend themselves to it naturally.

One teacher described a project in which students spent several days researching local nonprofits to design a logo for. In designing a logo, the students were expected to demonstrate knowledge about geometry, including kinds of angles and circles. At the end, the teacher scrambled to bring together those nonprofits for the students to present their logos, part of the school’s “authentic audience” requirement. Relatively little time in the multi-week unit was spent on building students’ math skills.

In addition, the excursions put heavy demands on school leaders’ time, limiting the support they could give to teachers in adjusting to the new model.

Last year, Martinez said, she spent most of her time planning the learning expeditions. She wasn’t able to give teachers the in-classroom support she believes they need. This year, she leads a team of three to balance both in- and out-of-class learning.

And adjusting to the extended school year depleted students and teachers alike.

By the time tests rolled around in April, “we were in school since July,” said junior Elijah Huff. The tests also occurred right between two of the still-new learning trips, a potential distraction for students already struggling to get up to speed.

The changing leadership and new pressures for teachers have ramped up teacher turnover. Within two years of Stein’s departure, a majority of the teaching staff left, and Dale, too, has seen high turnover in his two years.

Dale engineered some of the turnover. Last year, several teachers received notice that their contracts would not be renewed in the weeks before the state test. And this year, one teacher who asked to remain anonymous said the heavy burden of the instructional model had been so draining that she was contemplating leaving the school before the year ended.

Students have noticed the new faces. “None of my teachers from the ninth grade are here anymore,” one said.

The turnover is forbidding the school to grow a long term culture, Butler said.

“Consistency of adult presence is huge,” Butler said. “[Students] need to know that you’re going to be there. Most of our ninth grade teachers are first year teachers. They don’t have the trust yet. It’s got to be frustrating to have to spend a year earning teenagers’ respect.”

Finding the best in a complex model

The future of the school may lie somewhere between the visions laid out by Stein and Dale.

It might look a little bit like what Butler, whom several colleagues pointed to as the best in the school, tries to do in his classroom.

For Butler, teaching social justice means explaining to students that by going to college and getting a good job, they can change the face of their neighborhood. He likes the school’s focus on correcting society’s wrongs, but he makes sure his classes are dominated by solid academic instruction.

“I’m not going to sacrifice a day [of teaching] in my class for that,” Butler said of the social justice focus. The decision has considerable consequences for him, because how he integrates social justice is the second most important factor in his annual evaluation, counting for a fifth of the points he could earn. His performance on that portion of the evaluation is “far from phenomenal,” he says.

Butler dominates the second-floor hallway where he teaches. As students saunter from class to class, he stands by his door, urging them to move along. He guides his classes with a calm and patient demeanor. When needed, he can make his booming voice echo through the classroom as he urges students to focus and do their work.

“It’s not pretty or organized,” Butler said of his classroom style. “I like the struggling and grappling with ideas.” It works, he said, because he lays out the rules and why they exist early.

Since last spring, staff and teachers have noticed the reemergence of Stein’s heavier-handed model at the school, at least in small ways.

“Some of the things we were doing a few years ago we’re going back to,” said Doug Clinkscales, Manual’s dean of students and one of Stein’s hires who has lasted into Dale’s tenure. He taught social studies from the school’s opening until last year.

“There were some things that are tried and true that we had to try again, to remember they’re true,” said Butler. He pointed to the standards-based grading that Stein used and that Dale brought back in the second year, after experimenting with a complex 1000-point grading system.

The school has also banned electronics use in class, although students regularly click away on their devices, and has brought back an ACT-prep curriculum for some classes.

There are other things Butler would like to see come back, such as incentives on tests, something he felt Stein had implemented well.

Teachers and staff should “treat the test like a state championship game,” Butler said. Last year, “we didn’t treat it like something we want to win.”

The district also could play a greater role in shaping the school’s approach this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s innovation chief, is in the school frequently to help leaders determine the school’s next steps after last year’s poor showing on state tests. She is the district’s representative as it walks a precarious line between honoring the school’s autonomy while protecting its own promise of a successful school to a community scarred by the 2006 closure.

She believes that the school’s social justice focus should continue to be a part of the school’s culture going forward.

“I think the vision for Manual is bold and appropriate,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Part of Manual’s path is to create a sense of belonging in the world around them.”

But if the school is going to improve, she expects to “see practice in the school building change dramatically.”

Whatever model the school and district decide on, staffers hope they’ll have a chance to see it to fruition.

“We just need to pick a focus and go with it,” said Butler. “Our model can work just as well if we can be consistent and stick to it.”

Clinkscales agrees.

“Whatever the school is going to look like, I want it to look like that for a few years,” he said.

On Thursday, Chalkbeat Colorado will explore what outside factors affected the success of the school’s various model, including repeated hiring processes that went awry, overspending at the school that led to a $600,000 debt and entrenched conflict between Manual’s leaders and the district.