Tensions erupt at meeting to discuss future of embattled Denver high school

Community frustrations with a lack of control over the fate of Manual High School bubbled over Monday night in a meeting to discuss one proposal for the school’s future.

The district, which signaled its intention to overhaul the school earlier this year when it fired Manual’s principal, put out a call for proposals in March. The model presented Monday, which many felt has already received the district’s approval, would turn the campus over to a ninth grade academy for both neighboring East High School students and those students currently living in the Manual boundary. The campus would also house a career and technical academy for 10th through 12th graders that would continue under the Manual name.

For many in attendance, the changes spelled a drastic move away from the identity of the school, which has played an outsized role in Five Points neighborhood community.

“If I’m a tenth grader and I want to choose Manual, there’s no way to do that,” said Ben Butler, an English teacher at Manual. “I can’t be a Thunderbolt.”

In speech after speech, students urged the district to look beyond the school’s low performance on test scores. The sentiment often echoed the tense conversations that happened when the district abruptly decided to close and re-boot Manual in 2007 as a last-ditch effort to improve the school’s academic performance.

“You can’t break up a family based on a couple numbers,” one student called out.

District officials intended to discuss the proposal with a small group of “thought partners,” who have met for the past two months to discuss a way forward for the embattled high school.

Instead, students, parents, and community members in T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s mascot, a thunderbolt, packed the overheated room and called out their frustrations. The commotion comes on the heels of several months of uneasy relations between the school community and the district, after district officials fired the school’s former principal and and eliminated some aspects of the school’s unique program.

The room frequently erupted with loud applause for those who questioned the district. The moderator hired by the district threatened to kick unruly participants out. Students and non-committee members were discouraged from speaking during the presentation and were told to write their questions on index cards. Instead, they funneled questions through some committee members and called out their support.

Many of the students and parents asked the district to consider the unique community students and staff had built, where students are encouraged to voice their opinions and take leadership roles.

“How many students from other schools would stay when we were told we couldn’t speak [at the meeting] and make ourselves heard?” asked Elijah Huff, a Manual student who comes from a long line of Thunderbolts. “Think about students who are becoming world changers.”

And students in the audience worried that the school would be transformed without their input.

“Why haven’t you asked students what they want changed at Manual?” one student asked. The time for that is later in the process, a district official responded.

The tension in the room reached a breaking point as district officials concluded their presentation. Assistant principal Vernon Jones and a group of students confronted Superintendent Tom Boasberg, criticizing the district for squashing a plan that would have preserved some of the school’s social justice model. Jones claimed district officials discouraged them from submitting it and told a consultant helping them to cease her work.

“I don’t understand why we didn’t get a chance,” Jones said. “We thought we had a chance to self-determine. You took it from us.”

Boasberg promised Jones would have the opportunity to submit a proposal, although many felt the district had already made up its mind about the school’s future.

The career and technical focus for the upper grades, which had received some support from committee members at past meetings, proved to be a flashpoint, with some wondering if it tracked students into vocational pathways.

Parents also critiqued the proposal to send Manual students, who are overwhelmingly black and Latino, to East, which has the second largest achievement gap in the district and a reputation for in-school segregation.

“As a parent of a black and brown student…what’s the carrot?” asked Courtney Torres, a Manual parent and a member of the committee. She and others echoed claims made by school staff that Manual has had success at closing the achievement gap.

Some also proposed an alternate, if unlikely, solution: redraw the boundaries between Manual and East, which are less than two miles apart. Those boundaries, which were redrawn at the end of busing in the ’90s, have proved a sore spot for both communities.

“All of this is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic that you made with the racist boundary,” said one Manual father.

But Boasberg said the district generally avoids redrawing boundaries, due to the disruption to students and families.

“I know it’s going to piss a lot of people off, but so did civil rights legislation,” countered the father.

In the end, many left the meeting dissatisfied with the outcome. While many felt it was an opportunity for students and others to have a voice in the process, some left the meeting frustrated with the combative tone.

“We are still trying to figure out what’s best for Manual,” said Monica Johnson, whose son attends Manual. “Being against each other is not going to solve anything.”