Building Better Schools

Special Report: A promise unfulfilled at Manual High School

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High School students pass through the halls in between classes. The five minutes students are supposed to have between each class can sometimes stretch to 10 or 15 cutting into instruction time.

The Manual High School community has been promised — a lot.

Since the mid-1990s, the school has been a laboratory for well-intentioned reform efforts aimed to better educate the school’s mostly poor and minority student population. But every effort, including a dramatic closure and reboot in 2006, has failed to sustain even the most modest progress.

This fall, Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual, interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. In four parts, we 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.

A Manual High School student reviews his class assignment. Students did so poorly on last year's state exams, district officials believe Manual ninth graders lost more ground than at any other high school.
A Manual High School student reviews his class assignment. Students did so poorly on last year’s state exams, district officials believe Manual ninth graders lost more ground than at any other high school.

Part 1: Much change, little success

Eight years ago, Manual High School was the centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts. But once again, Manual is the lowest-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.

Manual students, left, check their work with English teacher Olivia Jones, right. Jones, like several teachers at Manual, are just starting out.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual students, left, check their work with English teacher Olivia Jones, right. Jones, like several teachers at Manual, are just starting out.

Part 2: Conflicting views on path forward

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.

Instructional coach Rebecca Martinez leads a professional development meeting at Manual High School. Martinez was originally hired to lead the school's experiential learning program, which is now in jeopardy after the school overspent it's budget last year.
Instructional coach Rebecca Martinez leads a professional development meeting at Manual High School. Martinez was originally hired to lead the school’s experiential learning program, which is now in jeopardy after the school overspent its budget last year.

Part 3: Missteps, red tape, lax oversight

Denver Public Schools has repeatedly taken actions to make it more difficult for Manual’s staff to focus on their charge of building a strong school culture and boosting student achievement. The school district forced a rushed planning process to get the school off the ground, lost one school leader, and took a full school year to find a replacement, in the process leaving a vacuum that siphoned away early academic progress.

A Manual student skateboards across an entrance in December. Students are aware of how far behind they are, but constant 'nagging' has left many students dis-interested in learning.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
A Manual student skateboards across an entrance in December. Students are aware of how far behind they are, but constant ‘nagging’ has left many students uninterested in learning.

Part 4: Community is a resource, paradox

Over the years, as educators have worked to improve Manual, parents and the school’s broader local community have been a valuable resource, helping the school raise money, mentoring students and advocating for the school’s future. But with different understandings of the school’s strengths, educators and community members have often clashed over what Manual really needs.

test scores

New York City’s math and English test scores increased slightly. Here’s the breakdown.

Students take an exam at Bronx Science.

The proportion of New York City students who passed state exams in math and English this past school year ticked up slightly, according to statewide test scores released Tuesday.

The latest results show the share of city students who passed the English exams jumped by 2.6 percentage points to 40.6 percent, higher than the state average of 39.8 percent. The share of New York City students who passed math exams increased by 1.4 percentage points to 37.8 percent, lower than the state average of 40.2 percent.

New York City’s growth on English scores was higher than the state’s increase of 1.9 percentage points. In math, New York City also rose more than the state, which saw an increase of 1.1 percentage points.

The bump in grades 3-8 test scores is far less dramatic than last year’s, but is more likely to be an accurate barometer of student achievement.

Unlike last year, when state officials said changes to the tests made year-over-year comparisons unreliable, top education officials said this year’s gains show improvements in learning. “The test scores we’re announcing today are a positive sign that we continue to steadily head in the right direction,” said the state’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.

Observers have been eager to see whether more or fewer students opted out of the state exams. Statewide, 19 percent of students refused to take the tests, down two percentage points from 2016. In New York City, 3 percent of students opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math. A total of 17,234 students, or 4.0 percent, out of either exam. That’s higher than last year, when 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams and 2.76 percent opted out of math.

All racial groups made progress on English and math tests, and the so-called achievement gap between white students and those of color did not narrow significantly. On English tests, for instance, black and Hispanic students’ pass rates increased by 2.3 and 2.5 percentage points, respectively, while white students increased by 2.1 points. In math, white students posted slightly larger gains than their black and Hispanic peers.

The uptick in New York City’s charter school test scores was once again higher than that of district schools. Charter schools’ pass rate on English rose 5.2 percentage points to 48.2 percent. Their pass rate on math increased 3 percentage points to 51.7 percent. Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, far surpassed those averages with 84 percent of students passing English and 95 percent of students passing math.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”