thunderbolts in transition

Manual High School’s next leader to be named, advisory panel behind career education option

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High social studies teacher Andrew Egeler led a class discussion in 2013.

Denver school officials will solidify the direction of the district’s neediest high school in the coming weeks when they introduce the next principal at Manual High School. But some parents and community members aren’t sure they’ll be part of the welcome wagon.

Manual parents and community members met with two finalists, Nickolas Dawkins and Robert Kelly Jr., Monday evening. The candidates will meet with Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg next week for a final interview.

Meanwhile, a community committee assembled to advise Denver Public Schools officials on how to move the school forward has issued its final report.

The committee, made up of Manual alumni, parents, staff, and community members, has endorsed a career and technical program where students can earn biomedical training and certificates.

Some committee members also stressed their hope, despite Manual’s low enrollment, the school will continue to offer a comprehensive education to students that includes music and the arts.

“We feel like the Manual of today is strong, is moving in a wonderful direction, has a lot of momentum,” said Karen Mortimer, a member of the committee and DPS parent. “It’s not a school that needs to be unplugged. It’s a school that needs to be supported in its continued excellence.”

Yet as the next chapter for Manual is coming into focus, some community members and parents are raising concerns about the principal candidates’ qualifications and the school’s new biomedical career track.

About the finalists

Dawkins is principal at Hamilton Middle School in Denver. Kelly is an assistant principal at Overland High School in Aurora.

Dawkins grew up in Denver, graduated from East High School, and later taught English at South High School.

In 2009, he was an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School as part of the University of Denver’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders.

He then spent two years as a principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College as part of the district’s leadership program, Learn to Lead.

Since 2012, he has been the principal at Hamilton Middle School, which has about 900 students.

According to Dawkins’ resume, he managed a $4.1 million budget, launched a program that gave every student a laptop, and raised the school’s performance rating to green, a status that indicates the school is meeting the district’s expectations.

Kelly is a graduate for the University Of Alaska-Anchorage. He began teaching physical education in Anchorage in 1995. He also coached a variety of sports teams including wrestling, track, football, and soccer.

According to his resume, he moved to Colorado in 2006 to become the athletic director and assistant principal at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County.

In 2007, Kelly moved to the Cherry Creek School District to become an assistant principal at Overland High School, which has more than 2,000 students. There he took a role in instruction and teacher evaluations. He has also been the school’s assessment coordinator. He developed an intervention program for at-risk students. And he launched two leadership programs for male students.

Both Hamilton and Overland are racially diverse schools. About half the students at both schools qualify for federally-subsidized lunches. Manual’s population is predominately black or Latino. Nearly three-fourths of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Neither Dawkins nor Kelly responded to requests for interviews.

Not afraid of the spotlight

A lot of hard work awaits Manual’s next leader. It is the city’s lowest performing high school.

Not only will the new principal need to drastically boost student achievement and roll out a new program intended to help students develop expertise in the medical field, he’ll also need to win over students, parents, faculty, district officials, and a fiercely protective group of alumni and community supporters.

At times, those constituencies haven’t seen eye-to-eye.

“We’re looking for someone who has the right skills to engage and engender buy in of community,” said Susana Cordova, Denver’s chief schools officer. “We’re looking for someone who is able to articulate and build on vision for the school and do that in collaboration with stakeholders. We’re looking for someone who is not afraid to be in the spotlight.”

Manual has been a hotbed of reform efforts since the mid-1990s. In 2006, the school was shut down for a year when Denver Public Schools attempted to reboot Manual, which sits in a historically black northeast portion of Denver. The reform efforts led by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, now the state’s senior U.S. senator, was subject of a New Yorker profile.

While test scores improved for a short time, a leadership transition in 2010 meant a slip in academic rigor and culture. In 2014, then-principal Brian Dale was fired after he overspent the school’s budget by more than $600,000 without improving test results. Don Roy, a Denver middle school principal was named as Dale’s successor and charged with steadying the school. Roy’s tenure will end at the conclusion of the school year.

DPS officials announced this fall they were searching for a new principal at Manual High School. The news came as the district abandoned a plan to merge Manual with nearby East High School.

Cordova said whomever the district chooses to lead Manual will be working closely with his direct supervisor to ensure the school’s culture and academic rigor — which reportedly have been improving under Roy — don’t backslide. The district, she said, has put an emphasis on coaching not just teachers, but principals as well.

Some in the Manual community are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming leadership transition.

“Manual has been screwed a lot — starting with those boundary lines — but I feel like the district is taking a little more ownership,” said Lainie Hodges, a Manual alumni who served on the Manual Thought Partner committee.

Processing the process

Not all members of the Manual committee are convinced DPS has turned over a new leaf when it comes to Manual. A vocal group of parents who share a strong bond with former Manual assistant principal Vernon Jones, whose contract was not renewed this fall, have been raising concerns about how DPS has positioned Manual for the future.

Parent Courtney Torres, a member of the community advisory group, said she left the committee because she felt the process was only for show.

“From my point of view, [my participation] wasn’t beneficial for me or my students,” Torres said.

She also took offense to DPS suggesting a program to track students into the medical careers and not college.

“I think the reason I chose Manual was because it was a college prep,” Torres said. “It’s oxymoronic to call Manual a college prep school and offer [career programs]. College prep is when you’re preparing students to think critically, to learn with books, to engage in conversation. But when you track kids into giving kids medical assistance and technician certificates — that’s the opposite of college prep.”

Both Mortimer and Cordova stressed that the biomedical track, which will be paid in part by a grant from the Kaiser Foundation, will be optional.

Parent Jason Janz said he is concerned that Monday’s parent meeting with the principal finalists appeared to be thrown together at the last minute with little notice to parents. He also expressed concern the candidates were not asked demanding questions.

“Both [candidates] are very likable individuals,” Janz said. “They’re passionate about education. But as a community, we only had 20 minutes to hear them talk. The questions were all scripted — I call them, ‘do you like children questions.'”

District officials did send out a letter announcing the forum. But the date was changed due to a scheduling conflict one of the candidates had. A district spokesman said three automated phone calls were placed alerting parents to the change in time. The district also posted notices on the school’s Facebook page.

Hodges, who helped organize the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, disagreed with some of Janz’s claims.

“Any rumor that hardball questions weren’t asked is just wrong,” she said.

Audience members were asked only to submit questions that both candidates could respond do. Participants were also able to ask both candidates individual questions afterward for about 45 minutes, she said.

Janz also said he is uneasy about the candidates’ qualifications: Neither has been a principal at a high school before.

“If you think every assistant principal is cut out to be a principal, you probably also think Sarah Palin or Joe Biden could run this country,” Janz said.

Cordova, DPS’s chief school officer, wouldn’t respond directly to those concerns, but said she had faith in a hiring process that included input and a review of applicants by multiple groups including Manual’s Collaborative School Committee, a formal body made up of parents, teachers, and community members.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.