Honorary Manual High diplomas given to former Denver students displaced by the school’s closure in 2006

Adults wearing black mortarboards walk into a gymnasium. A TV camera captures the scene.
Former Manual High School students, who attended when the district closed the school in 2006, walk into a gymnasium Monday for a short ceremony awarding them honorary diplomas. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

After the Denver school board voted in 2006 to close Manual High School, Manual’s 800 students were scattered across the city. Many graduated from different Denver high schools, a milestone that some who disagreed with the closure look back on with mixed emotions.

On Monday, a new Denver school board issued honorary diplomas to 11 former Manual students who did not have the opportunity to graduate from the 129-year-old high school, which is one of the city’s oldest and most storied with a long list of notable alumni. 

Wearing black mortarboards, the former students accepted their diplomas and shook hands with board members and Superintendent Alex Marrero, who were dressed in full graduation regalia.

Shanita Lewis was a freshman when Manual closed. Lewis went on to graduate from Denver’s George Washington High School in 2009 but said she always identified with Manual.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said after the ceremony. “It feels complete.”

Her sister, Oshanette, was a sophomore when Manual closed. She too graduated from George Washington, where she said students were disrespectful to who they termed “the Manual kids.”

DPS awarding her and her classmates honorary Manual diplomas “means a lot,” she said.

Oshanette Lewis was a sophomore when Manual High School closed. In this 2006 photo, she chanted with her classmates to protest the closure. (Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

Marrero apologized to the former Manual students for the closure.

“We can never fully repair the pain that was caused,” said Marrero, who joined DPS in 2021 and wasn’t superintendent at the time of the closure. “We learn from it and we grow.”

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, himself a graduate of Manual after it reopened, said the honorary diplomas were an effort to recognize “our past failure as an institution.”

“We are going to make this right,” Anderson said.

A previous school board voted in February 2006 to close Manual for low academic performance. It reopened in fall 2007 with freshmen and rebuilt its student body over the next several years. 

The closure was in line with a philosophy held by the DPS administration at the time. Former boards and superintendents believed closing and restarting schools with new teachers and programming was key to improving test scores and better serving students.

But that approach was often traumatic for the students and families, most of whom were Black and Latino. The current administration has moved away from closing schools for low test scores, though it recently closed three schools for low enrollment.

Ten of the 11 honorary diplomas were awarded to former students who attended Manual when it was closed in 2006.

The eleventh was issued to Otis Taylor, who should have graduated from Manual in 1967 but was expelled for what Anderson said was “hair discrimination,” which is now illegal in Colorado. Taylor is a musician who was later inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, according to the school board proclamation awarding him an honorary diploma. 

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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