A promise unfulfilled : Part 1

After ambitious overhauls, Denver high school sees much change, little progress

The teachers had turned the classroom into an instructional war room. The walls were covered with bar graphs, hand-drawn in magic marker. Yearbook photos appended each graph, showing the faces of the students whose results were on display.

It was late in the afternoon on an early November day, and the staff at Manual High School in northeast Denver had just analyzed the school year’s first round of diagnostic tests, translating scores into predictions of each student’s post-graduation options. The outlook was not good.

“Terrifying,” one teacher observed, looking at the sophomores’ proficiency rates.

If the proficiency trend continued, most of the students, the data forecasted, would not score high enough on the ACT to be accepted into a selective college like the University of Colorado — or even one of the state’s community colleges.

The results were not supposed to be so dire. Eight years ago, Manual High School was the centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts, dramatically shuttered and reopened by the district administration with the promise of turning a long-struggling high-poverty high school into the city’s academic crown jewel.

The reboot was supposed to end the school’s long decline and return it to its place as one of the city’s most beloved campuses, known for its academic excellence and championship-winning basketball team.

But that isn’t the case. Manual is once again the worst-performing high school in the city, as judged by state test scores. By some measures, the school is worse even than it was when the school board voted to shutter its doors in 2006. Instead of symbolizing urban school reform’s promise, the school is now a case study in the all-too-common descent from good intentions to disappointment.

This fall, Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual, interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. Over the next four days, we will explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. We will describe key challenges facing Manual today as it moves forward. And we will explore the role that Manual’s community — students, parents, and a vocal corps of alumni — has played in Manual’s past, present, and future.

The obstacles Manual faces as it once again begins the uphill battle of improving performance include:

  • Tense relations between the school and the district. Through many fits and starts, and three principals in the last seven years, Manual’s relationship with Denver Public Schools has been a constant challenge. Early on, the district offered the school autonomy to hire its own team of teachers and choose its own curriculum and teaching materials. In practice, the principal who first led the turnaround, Rob Stein, found himself getting snared in the district’s bureaucracy. In more recent years, Stein’s successor, current principal Brian Dale, has enjoyed much of the autonomy that Stein fought for but also discovered the downside to that independence: a lack of support and oversight that led to challenges from financial mismanagement to low teacher morale.
  • A revolving leadership door. Manual saw strong gains in test scores under Stein. But after Stein left the school, the search for a new leader was slow and fraught with problems. Waiting for a permanent leader, Denver Public Schools placed administrator Joe Sandoval as a temporary principal. But without a permanent leader, the school lost its forward momentum, and by the time Dale arrived, progress had begun to flag.
  • Finding a consistent instructional approach. Since the mid-1990s, Manual has undergone repeated overhauls to its academic program. Under Stein, the school modeled itself on successful “no excuses” charter schools. Under Dale, the school now aims to turn students into “revolutionaries for social justice.” Many teachers say they long to try a single approach — and stick with it long enough to make it work.
  • Mismanagement of school funds. The school is working to repay a $600,000 debt to the district after leaders overspent their budget last year. The district failed to notice the school dipping into the red until months after the funds were already used for the school’s aggressive year-round model. The financial woes have jeopardized the centerpiece of Manual’s current instructional model — weeks-long cross-country trips designed to enhance the students’ learning and expand their horizons.
  • Reclaiming school culture. School staff are tirelessly working to instill in students a sense that they can be academically successful and can transform their neighborhood — and the world. But they’re battling a years-old stigma established by poor performance and a dramatic school closure. Teachers are exhausted from navigating the tension between the experience of the school and their current aspirations. And even though they trust their teachers, students are tuning out the hopeful message.

All of the challenges add up to a school that has tried many times to improve, with few long-term accomplishments to show for all the hope and hard work.

“Manual is sort of a case study of the classic tragic dark side of reform,” said Van Schoales, head of local advocacy group A+ Denver and a leader in several attempts to reboot the school’s performance. “There were heroic efforts by individuals or community members or others to do stuff and in every instance that I can think of, they were half measures.”

“I’m not learning anything”

One byproduct of the school’s current social-justice focus is that teachers and students are encouraged to think critically about what the school’s struggles mean for their lives.

Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler leads a class discussion. Egeler, like several instructors at Manual, are in their first year.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler leads a class discussion. Egeler, like several instructors at Manual, are in their first year.

Social studies teacher Andrew Egeler has structured a quarter-long unit around the study of oppressed and marginalized communities. One day, in November, one of the communities he asked his students to consider was their own: how is Manual and its low accountability ranking a social justice issue for the community?

Students sat in a haphazard circle while Egeler asked them to consider a variety of questions and give evidence for their answers: How has their community been marginalized? How is Manual different than other schools? Do you believe all kids in Denver have the same opportunities? What, if anything, could the school do to create equity?

Sophomore Nyesha Anderson had a simple request: teach her.

“I’m not learning anything,” she told the class.

“I can try my best with the education Manual gives me,” another student said, agreeing with Anderson. “But it might not be enough.”

A transfer student from Bishop Machebeuf, a private Catholic school in Denver, said responsibility lies with his fellow students.

“So many students don’t have respect for teachers,” he said. “And the teachers don’t know what to do. … We bring it upon ourselves. A lot of people just sit outside and smoke. We do it. It’s self-fulfilling.”

Another noted: “Some people get pushed down — and stay down.”

The following day, in a class a few doors down, a group of ninth grade boys huddled noisily around their teacher, Chris DeRemer, a veteran teacher who had come to the school only recently.

One boy, in a black hoodie, explained the commotion to a reporter. The students were waiting to receive their latest scores on tests designed to predict their end-of-year performance and ultimately their chances of getting into college. They were excited, chatting eagerly about how they thought they did.

But when they saw the scores, the students were dismayed. Some collapsed on their desks in heaps of teenage despair.

“Looks like I’m going to community college,” one boy said. “Can I leave?”

The boy in the black hoodie — the one who’d been chatting warmly just a moment ago — now sat in the back of the room, staring at the paper detailing his scores in silence. When his teacher sat with him to cheer him up, the student didn’t budge. His head slumped to his chest, scores in hand.

DeRemer encouraged them to think of the scores not as a failure but as an opportunity to improve.

“[The score] does not matter yet except where to improve,” he said. But his students loudly bemoaned the fate predicted by their scores.

“I’m never going to college,” said Dayshawn, a small young man in a red hoodie. Under his breath, he added, “I ain’t going to college. I go to Manual.”

More threats to leave or tear up their results followed. But no one followed through. Instead, DeRemer’s students lingered, shushing each other as he talked about what they could do to improve their scores and how to handle the testing environment.

“We have a lot of work to do as teachers,” he told his students.

“The school needs work,” Dayshawn replied.

“Negative time”

The stakes of that work are high. Manual is entering its first year of “turnaround” status, which means the school has five years to improve or the state’s Board of Education, under current law, can recommend a new principal and teaching staff be put in place, be turned over to a charter, or be closed altogether.

English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.

And that’s just the state. Denver Public Schools has the power to make dramatic changes to the school, including changing the school’s leadership at any time. But right now, the district seems poised to take a more conservative approach.

One option the district is considering is moving Manual into its northeast turnaround network, a group of schools that have undergone drastic improvement measures, including phase-outs and charter takeovers. Schools within the network have extended learning time, which Manual already employs, and receive additional support, including weekly visits from district staffers, targeted tutoring efforts in core subjects, data evaluations on measures including internal test scores and attendance, and accountability reports to track the schools’ progress.

According to the district’s innovation leader, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the goal is to provide schools with specialized expertise on dramatically improving their performance.

But nothing is for sure — the move depends on negotiations between the district and school leaders that will play out over the next several months.

This year’s steep drop in test scores has given the school a sense of urgency, according to Rebecca Martinez, one of the school’s instructional coaches, who also directs the school’s experiential learning program. They want the space to prove the instructional model they believe in — an alternative to the more prevalent “no-excuses” model the school once followed. But without support, they worry they will be forced to give up that aspiration, too.

“We have no time,” she said. “We have negative time.”

Although sources within the district said that Manual’s 2006 abrupt closure and re-opening proved a hard lesson about the challenges of closing a school, Manual’s recent academic challenges have once again sparked fears of closure among students and staff.

“Every time [students] see a downward data point, they say we’re closing,” Manual’s assistant principal, Vernon Jones said. The scars of the closure, he said, are still present on the community’s perception of the school.

While many observers still believe the decision to close Manual was the right one, the district has never repeated the process elsewhere and district officials say they’re unlikely to again.

The district has closed other low-performing schools gradually, phasing them out grade by grade as replacement schools phase in.

“We got smarter,” former DPS board president Theresa Peña , who voted in 2006 to shutter the school.

And according to the district, another attempt to close Manual is not even on the table.

“That is 100 percent not a conversation we’re having right now,” said Whitehead-Bust, who oversees Manual and who would be in charge of presenting any plans for change to the school.

But despite the spectre of closure, Jones sees signs of hope amidst the daily chaos.

A group of ninth graders have formed an honors book club. Sophomores have banded together to improve attendance. Groups of seniors spill into the Denver Scholarship Foundation to apply for college.

Administrators and teachers have worked hard to rebuild a warm and caring culture. Although many students remain disruptive, staff address issues with a personal touch, spending hours of their days talking with them and helping them formulate solutions for their problems.

These are the signs Jones points to when he says the school is headed for a new renaissance.

“We’ve come out of the winter of closure,” Jones said. “We’re in the Manual spring.”

On Wednesday, Chalkbeat Colorado looks at the various instructional models Manual has attempted to implement, options spanning the spectrum of ideas about what schools in high-poverty communities need to succeed.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.