A promise unfulfilled : Part 2

As struggling school tries to improve, conflicting views on best path forward

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Teacher Ben Butler was optimistic when Brian Dale became principal at Manual High School in 2011.

The school had been without a leader for a year, ever since the principal who spearheaded its turnaround, Rob Stein, had stepped down. And while Stein’s tight ship had come with improved test scores, some parents and students also longed for more traditional high school trappings.

What Dale proposed was a contrast to Stein’s style: Instead of embracing the “no-excuses” model that is increasingly popular in high-poverty schools, Dale focused on skills that he believed were more important than test-taking. Teachers would design lessons that students could relate to. They would use the rhetoric of revolution to discuss the stakes around improving students’ performance.

The new direction appealed to Butler, then a substitute teacher and football coach who now teaches language arts at the school.

“If I had to choose between letting a young adult grow into a good test taker or a self-reliant individual,” he said, “I’d take the self-reliance.”

But three years later, Manual is again the lowest-performing high school in Denver: Last year students scored so low on state standardized tests, the results eroded almost every academic gain the school had made since it re-opened. And Butler increasingly wonders whether a school that focuses on social justice would accomplish that mission better if it paid more focused attention to boosting test scores.

“[What] if we could say our revolution with math is increasing math scores?” said Butler.

The shifts that Manual has undergone in the last several years reflect a tug-of-war in the education reform world.

Reformers are divided between those who place their faith in the power of good teaching to transform student performance and those who point to the overwhelming impact out-of-school factors have on student performance. For the second group, change will have to extend beyond teaching, to systemic and societal overhauls.

Stein represented the first group. Dale belongs to the second. But Manual’s future might well hinge on coming up with a third.

Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual this fall interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. This week, we explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. (Read Part 1 here.)

“More KIPP than KIPP”

Stein’s career spanned a wide array of schools, so it was hardly inevitable that he would bring the “no excuses” model to Manual. But with a mandate from the district to boost scores, Stein modeled his program on high-performing charter networks such as KIPP, where lessons are scripted, performance data is scrutinized, and discipline is strict.

“We looked at better schools with similar student populations and emulated them,” said Stein, who came to Manual from an elite private school. Staff members visited schools around the country and observed their classrooms and internal operations. Denver charters “STRIVE and DSST were very strong influences on how we opened up,” Stein said.

Stein and his staff designed a structure that rewarded test scores, tracked students for college success, and created clear guidelines for behavior, like the charter schools they had observed. Students were required to wear uniforms, were subject to strict behavior rules, and received cash payments for boosting their test scores.

“I remember walking into the school three or four months after it opened,” said Van Schoales, leader of education advocacy group A+ Denver. “It [was] more KIPP-like than KIPP.”

Stein’s leadership had a soft side, too. Staff who worked under him — including Butler and Mario Giardello — said they were included in decision-making, and staff applied their data systems to monitor students’ personal stresses and intervene when challenges emerged. And Stein said it was classroom instruction, not all the rules, that most made the difference for students.

“We really knew that kids needed lots of emotional support and lots of structure,” Stein said. “A lot of it was just really good teaching. We had a very specific instructional model that we wanted to see in every classroom.”

Consistency was important, he said. His mission was to find what worked well and own it.

“What we did not want to do was innovate,” said Stein. The pressure was on. Manual in 2007 “was not a place to experiment on kids.”

Looking for “different results”

In the three years Stein led Manual, the school’s scores improved and the school culture was beginning to take shape. But Stein had tired of battling with Denver’s school bureaucracy over how he was running the school and left without seeing his first class of students graduate. Since leaving, he has taken an administrative position at a district where he would get to help principals do what he felt he had been unable to.

The position wasn’t permanently filled until a year after Stein announced his departure and in the interim, much of his staff drifted away from the school. His permanent replacement, Dale, has moved away from much of Stein’s vision and replaced many of his structures in favor of a new approach.

“We take our innovation status very seriously,” Dale said, referring to an agreement brokered with the district under the 2008 innovation schools law. “They want us to innovate.”

The school’s vision now looks beyond “college and career” to say that “graduates will be the scholars and revolutionaries that our society needs to abolish inequalities.”

“We realized, to get different results than [historical] results, we’d have to do something different,” Dale said.

Gone are the uniforms and the laser-focus on test scores. In their place: nearly year-round study, with three-week summer and winter breaks, and a social justice focus to all academic courses.

Manual High School students embrace in the school's hall. The school's model invokes restorative justice.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High School students embrace in the school’s hall. The school’s model invokes restorative justice.

As for discipline, the school uses a restorative justice model rather than a punitive one. When a student disrupts class, rather than punish them, the school asks teachers to resolve their issues through organized discussions.

Teachers are evaluated primarily on how they collaborate with other teachers and the collective content test scores, and  on how well and how seamlessly they incorporate social justice concepts into their teaching.

The school’s biggest selling point is its experiential learning program, where every student goes on five weeklong trips a year designed to enhance their in-class learning and broaden their purview.

“We want to give students a real reason to become academically proficient,” said Rebecca Martinez, Manual’s instructional coach. “The vision is beyond career ready.”

Martinez and her team spend countless hours with teachers and content teams to develop quarter-long instructional arcs that lead to weeklong trips to places like Memphis, Tenn. and Little Rock, Ark.

The model is a dramatic departure from Stein’s academics-first approach but is not without precedent. But few schools with similar strategies serve as disadvantaged a population as Manual.

In New York City, for instance, School of the Future High School focuses on collaborative learning and students’ self-respect. But the school’s student population is far more economically diverse than Manual’s. The school’s progress on closing the achievement gap for English language learners and other groups is half the citywide average for high schools, according to graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes.

At Manual, Dale’s social justice model has failed to produce even the results his predecessor’s stricter program did. The full rollout of the model last year resulted in the school’s poorest showing on state tests since it reopened.

Flaws exposed

While Dale’s softer model has won support from neighborhood parents, last year’s test scores revealed weaknesses in Dale’s vision and how he has implemented it. External impediments also plagued the model, an issue which will be explored tomorrow.

Many teachers struggled to apply the social justice lens, especially in fields like math that do not lend themselves to it naturally.

One teacher described a project in which students spent several days researching local nonprofits to design a logo for. In designing a logo, the students were expected to demonstrate knowledge about geometry, including kinds of angles and circles. At the end, the teacher scrambled to bring together those nonprofits for the students to present their logos, part of the school’s “authentic audience” requirement. Relatively little time in the multi-week unit was spent on building students’ math skills.

In addition, the excursions put heavy demands on school leaders’ time, limiting the support they could give to teachers in adjusting to the new model.

Last year, Martinez said, she spent most of her time planning the learning expeditions. She wasn’t able to give teachers the in-classroom support she believes they need. This year, she leads a team of three to balance both in- and out-of-class learning.

And adjusting to the extended school year depleted students and teachers alike.

By the time tests rolled around in April, “we were in school since July,” said junior Elijah Huff. The tests also occurred right between two of the still-new learning trips, a potential distraction for students already struggling to get up to speed.

The changing leadership and new pressures for teachers have ramped up teacher turnover. Within two years of Stein’s departure, a majority of the teaching staff left, and Dale, too, has seen high turnover in his two years.

Dale engineered some of the turnover. Last year, several teachers received notice that their contracts would not be renewed in the weeks before the state test. And this year, one teacher who asked to remain anonymous said the heavy burden of the instructional model had been so draining that she was contemplating leaving the school before the year ended.

Students have noticed the new faces. “None of my teachers from the ninth grade are here anymore,” one said.

The turnover is forbidding the school to grow a long term culture, Butler said.

“Consistency of adult presence is huge,” Butler said. “[Students] need to know that you’re going to be there. Most of our ninth grade teachers are first year teachers. They don’t have the trust yet. It’s got to be frustrating to have to spend a year earning teenagers’ respect.”

Finding the best in a complex model

The future of the school may lie somewhere between the visions laid out by Stein and Dale.

English teacher Olivia Jones addresses her class in a computer lab. The school's curriculum is designed by teachers and is supposed to be infused with social justice.
English teacher Olivia Jones addresses her class in a computer lab. The school’s curriculum is designed by teachers and is supposed to be infused with social justice.

It might look a little bit like what Butler, whom several colleagues pointed to as the best in the school, tries to do in his classroom.

For Butler, teaching social justice means explaining to students that by going to college and getting a good job, they can change the face of their neighborhood. He likes the school’s focus on correcting society’s wrongs, but he makes sure his classes are dominated by solid academic instruction.

“I’m not going to sacrifice a day [of teaching] in my class for that,” Butler said of the social justice focus. The decision has considerable consequences for him, because how he integrates social justice is the second most important factor in his annual evaluation, counting for a fifth of the points he could earn. His performance on that portion of the evaluation is “far from phenomenal,” he says.

Butler dominates the second-floor hallway where he teaches. As students saunter from class to class, he stands by his door, urging them to move along. He guides his classes with a calm and patient demeanor. When needed, he can make his booming voice echo through the classroom as he urges students to focus and do their work.

“It’s not pretty or organized,” Butler said of his classroom style. “I like the struggling and grappling with ideas.” It works, he said, because he lays out the rules and why they exist early.

Since last spring, staff and teachers have noticed the reemergence of Stein’s heavier-handed model at the school, at least in small ways.

“Some of the things we were doing a few years ago we’re going back to,” said Doug Clinkscales, Manual’s dean of students and one of Stein’s hires who has lasted into Dale’s tenure. He taught social studies from the school’s opening until last year.

“There were some things that are tried and true that we had to try again, to remember they’re true,” said Butler. He pointed to the standards-based grading that Stein used and that Dale brought back in the second year, after experimenting with a complex 1000-point grading system.

The school has also banned electronics use in class, although students regularly click away on their devices, and has brought back an ACT-prep curriculum for some classes.

There are other things Butler would like to see come back, such as incentives on tests, something he felt Stein had implemented well.

Teachers and staff should “treat the test like a state championship game,” Butler said. Last year, “we didn’t treat it like something we want to win.”

The district also could play a greater role in shaping the school’s approach this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s innovation chief, is in the school frequently to help leaders determine the school’s next steps after last year’s poor showing on state tests. She is the district’s representative as it walks a precarious line between honoring the school’s autonomy while protecting its own promise of a successful school to a community scarred by the 2006 closure.

She believes that the school’s social justice focus should continue to be a part of the school’s culture going forward.

“I think the vision for Manual is bold and appropriate,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Part of Manual’s path is to create a sense of belonging in the world around them.”

But if the school is going to improve, she expects to “see practice in the school building change dramatically.”

Whatever model the school and district decide on, staffers hope they’ll have a chance to see it to fruition.

“We just need to pick a focus and go with it,” said Butler. “Our model can work just as well if we can be consistent and stick to it.”

Clinkscales agrees.

“Whatever the school is going to look like, I want it to look like that for a few years,” he said.

On Thursday, Chalkbeat Colorado will explore what outside factors affected the success of the school’s various model, including repeated hiring processes that went awry, overspending at the school that led to a $600,000 debt and entrenched conflict between Manual’s leaders and the district.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.


New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.