Missteps, red tape and lax oversight plagued Manual High School’s turnaround

When Manual High School re-opened in August 2007 after a year of empty hallways, news reports described its transformation as a test of Denver’s aggressive slate of education reforms.

The now-defunct Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post wrote dozens of articles between the time the city’s school board shuttered the school and its rebirth a year later. The school and its new principal were showcased on NPR and in the lifestyle magazine 5280. A 2007 New Yorker piece described how then-superintendent Michael Bennet, now the junior U.S. Senator from Colorado, considered Manual to be “an opportunity to show how intolerant of low expectations he planned to be.”

For a few years after the school re-opened, all of the attention seemed like it would pay off. “We’ve got the whole community behind us,” the school’s principal Rob Stein told a Denver Post reporter. “How can we fail?”

But seven years later, Manual is once again the lowest-performing high school in Denver and, by some metrics, worse than when it was closed.

Manual’s ultimate failure to reinvent itself provides a case study in the obstacles that can doom urban school reform. This week, Chalkbeat Colorado is examining the challenges plaguing Manual’s turnaround. One major hurdle — explored yesterday in Part 2 of our series — has to do with decisions by Manual staff about what kind of instructional model to take on.

Another obstacle has been outside of the school’s control. That is Denver Public Schools, which 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.

The school district has also struggled with exactly what kind of relationship it should have with Manual. While early improvement efforts at the school were vexed by too much interference from the school district, lately, the school has suffered from a lack of oversight. The school is $600,000 in debt to Denver Public Schools, a deficit that has forced Manual leaders to put the centerpiece of their instructional model on hold.

Bennet, who left the district in 2009, would not comment for this story nor would his deputy Sarah Hughes. And his successor, Tom Boasberg, would not comment on individual principals or on the school’s history.

‘I turned them down’

When Bennet and district staff announced their plans to reinvent Manual High School, they promised that school officials would give the school all the support it needed to flourish.

But Bennet’s assurances meant little by February 2006, when the school board abruptly voted to change course from the plan Denver school officials had proposed.

The plan district officials favored would have tackled Manual’s dangerously low academic achievement and precipitously declining enrollment through a gradual phaseout of the school, followed by a carefully designed plan for what to build in Manual’s place. At the time, Manual was broken up into three small schools, the remnants of an earlier reform effort. The district suggested that the school consolidate the three into one and stop admitting new freshman classes. In the meantime, school officials could design a new alternative high school.

But at the meeting, the school board, with support from district officials, voted to change course and instead shutter the school all at once and reopen it in a year’s time. The decision prompted stunned outrage from the school’s community of students, parents, and alumni, who decried the move as racist and disenfranchising for the school’s impoverished black and Latino students.

At the time, Bennet and district officials assured angry community members that they would waste no time in re-opening the school. DPS, they said, would ensure that Manual had all the resources it needed to flourish.

Then-DPS board President Theresa Peña said recently she doesn’t remember of the specifics behind how the Manual reboot came to be. But she said broadly, “Manual was different. It really was an agonizing decision for the superintendent and the seven board members. The small school experiment didn’t work. And we were really invested in not doing another experiment on a community that really deserved a high performing high school.”In practice, though, the process dragged. Despite accepting applications from potential principals in October 2006, officials did not make an offer to a candidate until the following March — more than a year after the board voted to shut down the school and just five months before the school was to open.

By then, the candidate they solicited, Rob Stein, a Manual alumnus and longtime educator, told the officials he wasn’t interested. “I turned them down,” he said. Five months, he thought, was not enough time to design a new school and hire staff.

The night he declined the job, Stein said, Bennet’s chief of staff, Sarah Hughes, called him at home and urged him to change his mind.

“I went and talked to a bunch of people about what it would take to have a successful school and not another failure,” Stein said. He came back with a counter offer: he would accept the position, but only on the condition that school officials grant him the autonomy to hire his teachers, design his academic program, and select his own curriculum without interference from the district.

At the time, such freedom from district mandates was a relatively new concept for Denver’s schools. The state’s “innovation schools law,” which permits schools statewide to petition for the type of independence Stein sought, would not pass for another two years, and only nearby Bruce Randolph High School had been promised such autonomy before.

Still, Bennet agreed to the novel terms of Stein’s proposal, which were codified in his offer letter from the district, and Stein officially began work on the re-launch of Manual in April 2006.

‘Just totally scrambling’

Stein began with a rush to hire a teaching staff, largely from outside of the city and state. By that time — just four months before Manual was set to open its doors again — most of the district’s best teachers had already been placed at other schools.

A Manual student works on his class assignment. Student scores on state exams dropped so low Denver Public Schools ranked Manual among its lowest performing schools. (Marc Piscotty)

“When Manual reopened, we were all just totally scrambling,” said Buffy Naake, a leader of Friends of Manual, the school’s community support organization, who is also an education policy analyst.

The scramble had some benefits, including instilling a feeling of urgency in the teachers Stein hired. “There was this sense, ‘we’re not letting people down,’” said Doug Clinkscales, whom Stein hired to teach social studies and who is now Manual’s dean of students. “‘We’re not going to let this crumble.’ There was this pressure not to let this fail.”

But the rushed agreement between Stein and Bennet also created a foundation for conflict.

“The only reason I took the job was because I was negotiating a space within the system where the rules didn’t apply,” said Stein. But his promised freedom turned out to be fundamentally incompatible with the district’s centralized authority.

From the moment he entered the school, Stein found himself at odds with the officials charged with enforcing the district’s bureaucracy. “The system itself was not able to respond to the offer [Bennet] made,” Stein said.

One challenge was textbooks. Stein selected a set of books that was different from those used by most high schools in the city and asked the district to order them, citing his agreement with Bennet giving him freedom over curricular decisions. But when the books were delivered, Stein discovered that the city had ignored his request and sent the standard set instead.

Other fights with the district ranged from how to update the school’s athletic facilities to how to manage the janitorial staff. Stein’s frustration with the amount of time he was spending negotiating bureaucratic and management issues grew, and his staff could tell.

“[Stein is] very transparent,” Clinkscales said. “You knew it was contentious, and you knew what some of the issues were.”

A former district staffer who worked with the school — and only spoke to Chalkbeat on condition of anonymity, citing a need to protect ongoing professional relationships — said that Stein’s struggles were caused as much by his underestimation of how difficult it would be to reopen the school as by any conflict with the district. And by the 2007-08 school year, the district was making moves towards giving more principals the type of freedoms Stein sought, though that work was still in its early stages.

But despite the district’s growing warmth to Stein’s approach, his strained relationship with district officials became too much for him. “I wasn’t playing with their team,” he said. “I was playing against their team. There was too great a gap.”

So, he said, “I threw in the towel.” Stein resigned in the spring of 2010 after three years at Manual, before he could see the newly-reopened school’s first class to graduation.

‘Conflict between transitions’

Difficulties between the school and the district didn’t end with Stein’s departure. Repeated missteps in the hiring process for Stein’s replacement left community members feeling that they lacked a voice and left the school without a permanent leader for a full year.

The process to replace Stein was rocky at best. His permanent replacement, current principal Brian Dale, was hired more than a year after Stein announced he was leaving — and after Manual’s community of parents and alumni initially selected other candidates who either didn’t or couldn’t join the school.

Naake, of Friends of Manual, convened a community group to help the district pick his replacement. The group chose Trent Sharp, an administrator in charge of high school reform in Austin, Texas.

“We thought he’d be a great fit for Manual,” Naake said. “He had the right experience and passion for the student and family population. He was the favorite of the students.”

But Denver school officials offered Sharp the job of principal not of Manual, but of the Denver Center for International Studies – Montbello, a district magnet school. The district and Sharp, who has since returned to Austin, offered conflicting accounts of why he didn’t join Manual. Regardless, the decision was a deep disappointment to the school’s community.

Rather than offer the position to another candidate, the district asked an administrator who served on the principal search committee, Joe Sandoval, to run the rebounding high school for one year as the search continued.

“All [Sandoval] had to do was park the car,” Clinkscales said. But the result, Clinkscales said, was that “you had two springs with lame duck principals.”

Despite Stein’s contentious relationship with the district, his model — a highly structured approach that emphasized academic rigor and discipline — produced academic results. In its first two years, the school rose to third among the city’s comprehensive high schools in terms of academic growth. And proficiency scores on state exams, while unsteady, doubled in the first three years after the school reopened.

But during the second spring without a permanent principal, the school’s culture and academic rigor began to slip, according to Clinkscales. Stein’s teaching staff began to depart for other opportunities, and while Sandoval attempted to keep the school on course, end-of-year test scores showed only marginal growth, and disciplinary infractions rose.

As the school began to flounder, the hiring committee’s second-choice candidate also fell through.

The district cited “red flags” during reference checks, Naake recalls. “There is some problem with the way DPS ran that process,” Naake said.

As a third choice, the district finally tapped Dale. Then an assistant principal, Dale had been trained for school leadership at nearby Bruce Randolph Middle and High School, where a charismatic principal, Kristin Waters, had led a series of reforms similar to those implemented at Manual and seen some success.

But when Dale came on, he had to play catch-up to win over a school community that by that point had seen one leader depart in frustration and had its top picks to replace him whisked away for obscure reasons.

“The down side for him was that he wasn’t anyone’s first choice,” said Naake. “That can’t feel good knowing that.”

Moreover, the interim year with Sandoval meant that Dale didn’t have direct contact with Stein, preventing any chance to make a smooth transition.

“Stein and Dale could have met and handed off the school,” said Ben Butler, a language arts teacher who witnessed the move from one principal to the next. Instead, there was “conflict between each of the transitions.”

Some teachers felt Dale’s entry was forceful and objected to the changes he introduced during his first months. Among them was a sharp departure from Stein’s instructional approach in favor of one that emphasizes interdisciplinary teaching and social justice. As Dale laid out his different vision, some teachers left by choice or with encouragement.

Dale perceived the transition as standard. To him, that first year was about taking the temperature of the school and community.

“There was a little bit of anxiety,” Dale said. “I was the third principal in [three] years. The general sense was not really knowing what the next chapter would look like.”

(Marc Piscotty)

‘Now they’re paying attention’

Another reversal: unlike under Stein’s tenure, when challenges stemmed from interference by the school district, under Dale’s, the problem has been a lack of intervention.

Under the state’s 2008 “innovation schools” law, Manual now officially has the autonomy from district mandates that Stein fought for and more. The school’s innovation agreement also required that the school fundraise to pay for the five experiential learning trips that Dale wanted the students to take each year.

But last year, Dale, who spearheads the school’s outside fundraising, failed to bring in the amount of money required. Still, the school went ahead with several excursions without having the money on hand to pay for them, taking the funds instead from the school’s academic budget.

The result is that the school overspent its budget by more than half a million dollars last year — without district officials noticing.

“We allowed them to spend money throughout the year on the assumption that they would meet their fundraising goal and they didn’t meet it,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver Public Schools’ director of innovation.

Part of the reason the district missed the financial mismanagement is because of another element of the school’s new innovation model — its extended school year. “Their extended year and our systems don’t sync up naturally,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Because of the way they schedule their contract and excursions, they have higher expenses in months when the district is not traditionally checking closely on school budgets.”

Since discovering its lapse in oversight of Manual’s budget, the district has adjusted the way it monitors the budgets of innovation schools, Whitehead-Bust said.

But the overspending has taken a heavy toll on Dale’s ability to execute his vision of a socially conscious, experiential learning environment. The school’s excursion trips for this year have either been put on hold or cancelled outright. Dale and his assistant principal, Vernon Jones, also both voluntarily took massive pay cuts.

Dale offered 92 percent of his salary back to the district. Jones, 20 percent. “That’s how much we stand behind our idea,” Jones said.

Postponing the winter’s excursions has disappointed Dale’s staff, even some teachers who are otherwise skeptical of parts of the social justice-oriented curriculum.

“I wouldn’t have wanted this,” said Butler. “I wouldn’t have wanted to scale back.”

Dale is working right now to raise funds to pay back the debt to the district. If he is able to raise $100,000 by January 15, the school will be able to move forward with the last of its excursions, which would happen in June. But Dale said that he still has a way to go to meet that imminent deadline.

The money mishaps signal how far Manual, once the centerpiece of the district’s reform efforts, has drifted from the public eye.

“From 1995 until [Stein’s] leaving, Manual had been the epicenter of the school reform debates in Denver,” said Van Schoales, who heads local education advocacy group A+ Denver. In the past several years, other major school overhaul efforts have dominated the district’s attention, including those at Montbello and at West High School.

But after the steep slide in test scores and the school’s financial mismanagement, the district will be watching Manual more closely.

Before, “the district wasn’t paying much attention,” said one teacher who requested to speak anonymously. “Now they’re paying attention.”