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.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.