A promise unfulfilled : Part 2

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

Students at Manual High School work during class in 2013. (Photo by 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.

Election Guide

Meet the Newark power players looking to steer this year’s school-board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Ras Baraka is one of three powerful forces backing a slate of candidates considered the leading contenders in this year's school-board race.

One evening last week, excitement surged through the Willing Heart Community Care Center, a charity housed inside a Baptist church near downtown Newark.

Dozens of residents had crowded into the pews for a chance to listen to some of the 13 candidates vying for three open seats on the city’s school board. They understood the high stakes of next month’s election: Newly empowered after two decades under state control, the nine-member board will be responsible for managing the district’s nearly $1 billion budget and choosing a new superintendent.

This group of board members “will be the first set under the newly constituted Board of Education,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of Newark’s NAACP, which hosted the event, as the crowd rumbled with applause. A few moments later, she underscored her point: “This becomes a very, very important election.”

But for all of the election’s significance, it’s hardly expected to be a model of democracy.

Held in April apart from other elections, voter turnout — like school board races across the country — has historically been low. Last year, about 7,500 people cast ballots, or just over 5 percent of registered voters.

And three of the candidates are running on a slate backed by a powerful alliance of Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and the city’s growing charter-school sector. Candidates on that slate — previously dubbed “Newark Unity,” and now called “Moving Newark Schools Forward”  have dominated each election since the alliance formed in 2016.

Charles Love, a former parent organizer who ran in the previous two board elections, said the 10 candidates not on that slate face an uphill climb. Last year, Love had committed volunteers and the backing of a city councilwoman. But he said it was not enough to compete with the political machine behind the Unity slate, which helps its candidates fundraise, knock on doors, produce campaign materials, and prep for debates.

“In a sense, the Unity slate negates the independent candidate — it creates almost zero possibility of you winning,” Love said. “If you try to throw arrows at a tank, you’re going to lose.”

Below is a guide to the power centers behind the slate whose candidates are considered the leading contenders in this year’s election, which takes place April 17. (The deadline to register to vote is March 27.)

A muscular charter sector seeking to mobilize parents

As Newark’s charter-school sector has rapidly expanded to serve about a third of city students, its political ambitions have grown with it. That was made clear by its recent search for the ideal school-board candidate.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton (left) is a kindergarten teacher chosen to represent the charter-school sector in the race.

A coalition of charter-school advocates convened by the Newark Charter School Fund first identified nearly 20 potential candidates last summer. The contenders then participated in individual and group interviews, met current board members, and underwent trainings on how to run for public office. One session was conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter advocacy group led by Shavar Jeffries, a former Newark school-board member and mayoral candidate.

Finally, the coalition settled on Asia Norton, a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school.

“We think she is smart, talented, and has the right experience, temperament, and leadership to represent all of the 55,000 kids in Newark,” said Michele Mason, the Newark Charter School Fund’s executive director.

The charter sector began to ramp up its political involvement after Baraka’s election in 2014. During the campaign, he had crusaded against former Superintendent Cami Anderson — whose policies included opening more charter schools — and attacked Jeffries, who enjoyed strong backing by pro-charter forces.

The following year, supporters of the city’s largest charter-school operators, KIPP and North Star Academy, funded a new advocacy group called the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, or PC2E. The idea was to organize the thousands of Newark parents with children in charters into a potent voting bloc that could push back against critics who wanted to halt the sector’s expansion.

In 2016, PC2E joined the “Newark Unity” slate with Ramos and Baraka – a surprise given that Baraka had sharply criticized Newark’s charters for sapping resources from the district’s traditional public schools. PC2E’s political arm spent heavily on the board races — nearly $208,000 in 2016 and over $174,000 in 2017, according to campaign filings — and its candidates easily won each year. (PC2E has been less active since its executive director resigned in November.)

Now, charter advocates are focused on getting Norton elected. For her part, Norton is emphasizing her local roots — she grew up in the South Ward, and her mother is a Newark public-school teacher — over her charter credentials. At Thursday’s candidate forum, she touted her experience teaching for six years in Newark schools but did not mention that they were charters.

“I don’t view myself as a charter teacher,” Norton told Chalkbeat in an interview before the forum. “I’m a Newark teacher.” She said parents should be able to choose the best schools for their children – whether public, private, or charter.

“That’s what I think makes Newark so rich,” she said, “all the different educational programs that are provided for our children.”

A ‘pragmatic’ mayor running for re-election

Baraka has long been a force in the city’s school-board elections.

The “Children First” slate that he backed as a city councilman and then as mayor won seats in five consecutive elections, according to the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. In many of those races, his candidates battled those on the “For Our Kids” slate, aligned with the powerful North Ward.

So when he joined the Unity slate in 2016, many saw it as a shrewd political move. The alliance allowed him to choose a candidate who stood a strong chance of winning without having to take on the North Ward machine or the well-financed charter sector, whose schools serve a growing number of city residents.

“Mayor Baraka is very astute, he’s very pragmatic,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. When it came to the board elections, she explained, his options were to “be inclusive or wage a war of finances, organizing, and mobilization.”

This year, his chosen candidate is Dawn Hayes, a City Hall staffer and public-school parent.

According to her campaign biography, she is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and “the first Muslim woman working as a technician for Direct TV.” She is also a member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher organization.

Even as Baraka pushes for his slate to win in April, he is looking ahead to May 8, when he is up for reelection. While he is heavily favored in that race, a school-board victory ahead of time would help lend an air of inevitability to the outcome.

“Is it a barometer for the mayoral election?” said Baskerville-Richardson. “I guess so.”

A ward known for its political prowess

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Yambeli Gomez is a city councilman’s aide and former labor organizer chosen for the slate by the North Ward.

When it comes to racking up votes, the North Ward is a well-oiled machine.

It was long under the sway of Steve Adubato Sr., a political powerbroker who founded the North Ward Center in 1970 and one of New Jersey’s first charter schools, Robert Treat Academy, in 1997. Now Councilman Ramos, who ran for mayor in 2014 before dropping out and endorsing Jeffries, is one of the main forces behind the ward’s political operation.

In last year’s school-board election, slate candidates received far more votes in the North Ward than they did anywhere else — including Baraka’s base in the South Ward.

This year, Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, is chairing the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate. Ramos himself is bringing its members along as he canvases at churches and community events ahead of his own re-election bid in May.

“We really take the election seriously,” Ramos said about the board race. “We take it as an informal test of our operation.”

The ward’s candidate is Yambeli Gomez, an aide to Councilman At-Large Eddie Osborne.

The daughter of immigrants, Gomez previously was an organizer for campaigns to raise the wages of fast-food workers and expand pre-kindergarten in New York City. Her mother is an organizer for the powerful 32BJ SEIU union.

Introducing herself at last week’s forum, Gomez switched between English and Spanish — a nod to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Consistent with her slate, she sounded a theme of unity.

“I’m running for school board because I was one of those kids who didn’t feel included,” she said. “I want to be able to help and be inclusive.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.