Here we go again

Manual High learns of transition plans after principal exit

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

This post has been updated to add new information about Roy’s introduction to the school.

The principal of a Hilltop middle school has been named the new leader at Manual High School, a decision that appears to have been made late last year.

The announcement comes a day after the troubled high school’s principal, Brian Dale, abruptly announced his immediate departure in an email to his staff. It also comes a week after a series of articles chronicling Manual’s descent from reform promise to lowest-performing high school in the city were published by Chalkbeat Colorado.

Don Roy, who resigned the principalship of Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences on Dec. 20, has also previously served as an assistant principal and language arts teacher at Montbello High School, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Roy spent Friday morning visiting classes, some student leaders and staff at the school, and formally introduced himself to the student body and some parents at a meeting on Friday afternoon.

Introducing himself to Manual

Before Roy spoke, Manual’s assistant principal, Vernon Jones, welcomed him to the school and urged students to stay stalwart through the transition.

“We know change can be good,” Jones said. “The school has reason to be excited. We’re going to be T-Bolt Strong. And kick butt for the rest of the year.”

Roy then told the students that he was “so glad and proud” to be assuming leadership of the school.

“I want to tell you what’s important to me,” he said. “Getting kids ready for college and career. I believe in students. I believe in hard work. I believe in teachers. Where it happens is in the classroom.”

He told students to expect to see him regularly in the hallways and in their classrooms, and promised to learn their names quickly. “I know transition can be hard,” he said.

Dale’s abrupt departure and the district’s quick appointment of Roy has left many at the school feeling skittish, some students, parents and staff said in interviews.

After Roy was introduced at the assembly, sophomore Losseny Kone stopped the new principal and asked him what would make him perfect for the students of Manual. “He told me he wasn’t perfect, but to have the best school, to be the best leader, he’d listen and observe,” Kone recalled later.

Kone said that the reaction to the swift change among students was mixed. Dale was well-liked among the student body and the transition was very abrupt, he said. 

But with exits comes blessings, he said, and he wished the best for Dale.

“I feel like we’re [going to] move in a positive direction,” he said.

Denise Hubbard, whose daughter is a senior at the school, was even more skeptical of the new leader and critical of how the school district handled the switch.

“The board took away the voice of the parents,” said Hubbard, who learned of the leadership change from a phone call from the school at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning. “They didn’t consult us.”

One staff member, who requested to speak anonymously so as not to damage her relationship with the incoming principal, said that Dale’s departure had shaken the school.

“The building is nervous,” she said. “Students feel abandoned.”

Some students, she said, spent Friday morning crying. Few were able to concentrate on class.

She said that being able to count on the steady presence of known adults is important to students at Manual who may not have stable relationships outside of the school with adults.

“You need to build trust and love with students here before they’ll ever learn,” she said.

She argued that Dale’s swift disappearance and replacement would leave students without the the time they need to process. “It’s just another adult, gone,” she said. “As quiet as Dale was, the kids could still depend on him.”

And some observers worried that the leadership transition will be yet another disruption for a school that has struggled over the last seven years to find stability.

“It’s another change at Manual,” said Jim McNally, the school’s historian and board member of Friends of Manual. “Just what it didn’t need.”

A swift change, but a month in the making

Although Dale’s departure was finalized on Thursday, multiple sources confirmed to Chalkbeat Colorado that district officials have had a new leader in mind for the school since mid-December.

Roy sent a letter to his staff, students and community on Dec. 10 announcing that he was leaving. The letter, which is posted on the school’s website, did not explicitly say that he would be moving to Manual but says that he would “pursue another leadership opportunity within Denver Public Schools.”

District officials said that Roy’s departure from Hill was in fact planned last school year — though at that time officials did not intend for him to move to Manual — and that Roy originally planned to stay at the middle school while he prepared his replacement. However, Roy’s successor at Hill was ready to take the reins there early, freeing Roy to move on mid-year.

Roy began his tenure at Hill in 2001. Hill Middle School has consistently met district’s expectations, according to annual performance reports the district began issuing in 2008. The school’s proficiency rates have also outpaced the district’s since 2011, according to state data.

However, the school has historically had a wide achievement gap between students who qualify for free and reduced lunch — who make up almost 55 percent of the school’s students — and the rest of the student body. Those gaps range from 22 percent in writing to 32 percent in reading.

Manual’s student body is almost entirely minority and qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty.

Dale’s tenure saw a dramatic drop in student performance on state exams. Last year, the school posted the lowest scores on the tests since the school was closed in 2006 and re-opened a year later.

Roy will be the school’s fourth principal in the seven years since it was rebooted. The school’s first principal after the school re-opened, Rob Stein, resigned over conflicts with district administration. After a disjointed effort to find a replacement, Stein was succeeded first by a temporary principal and then by Dale, who assumed leadership of the school in 2011.

Enrollment push

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

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

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.