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Manual’s principal-to-be: “Changing the narrative” at a school that’s close to home

Nickolas Dawkins grew up six blocks away from Manual High School. This summer, he’ll be returning to his old neighborhood as the school’s principal.

Dawkins is stepping into the spotlight: Manual is the district’s lowest-performing high school and has been subject to a series of reforms and leadership changes in recent years. Dawkins’ appointment is part of the district’s newest effort to turn the school around.

Dawkins has been principal at southeast Denver’s Hamilton Middle School for two years. He was the Education Center’s principal of the year in 2014. Before that, he worked as a teacher at South High School, an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School, and an assistant principal and principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College.

Below, Dawkins talks with Chalkbeat about his path to a career in education, his plans for Manual, and building relationships with teachers and the community.

How did you get into education?

I’m a DPS graduate, I went to East High School. But this road for me was started by a really hard time in my own schooling. In my sophomore year I lost a parent. You can imagine my world was rocked. There were some key educators who became instrumental in my life, including one who is kind of like a godmother. She made sure I graduated—she actually drove me down to Metro [State University] to make sure I got to class….

Through that, I decided to go into teaching.

And through the process of teaching, and having successes, I was able to earn a scholarship to Oxford University. I really came back jazzed about the idea of providing a really high level education to students, because I hadn’t had any exposure to that kind of education at that level.

That’s when I began to think about school leadership.

Nick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School, will be principal at Manual High starting next school year.
PHOTO: via Nick Dawkins
Nick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School, will be principal at Manual High starting next school year.

Why Manual in particular?

I’m not just a principal who wants to be at any school. I didn’t just want to be a principal to be a principal. I thought back to my own upbringing during those tough times, when there was certainly a sense for many of us who grew up with single mothers…we had a feeling of, does anyone care that we’re struggling down here? We often felt like, I wish you would come back and help us out here.

That certainly became a memory for me again when I began to see the student protests this winter. Here we are again where we see our youth feeling like they don’t matter very much.

A lot of that was on my mind. I was wanting to follow my heart and say, I feel confident that I can be a leader for these kids.

And what a story for them to know that we do come back for the community.

I’ve always been a believer in the restorative nature of education, the way it can restore communities and bring people together. What an opportunity it would be to go back and try to help.

Can you talk a bit about equity at Manual?

I want to make sure our kids know, stats don’t define who they are. They can write their own story. It comes through hard work,education and relationships. Making sure there’s something who’s willing to hold you accountable.

If you look at my resume, I talk about closing achievement gaps. That’s very important to me.

You’re coming into a school that’s been under a lot of scrutiny, and people have a lot of opinions about what happens to it. How do you as a leader build relationships with those stakeholders?

We have so many people who have so much vested interest. We can’t do everything at the same time, but we can focus on some key areas of common ground, and try to do it well from the outset.

The thought partners [a community group focused on Manual] have put forth some ideas that are very exciting, and I’m just getting into those. I can’t talk specifically about what emerges out of that work…

We’ll likely host a common grounds process, which was very successful for me at Hamilton, where we’re able to get a diverse group of opinions and thoughtful partners into the same room for a consistent amount of time.

What would you say to people who question whether you’ve had sufficient experience to become principal at this school?

I feel like my experiences have given me a very unique set of leadership skills and capabilities. While I appreciate the question of, hey, is he high-school ready, middle school was newer for me than high school. My background has been exclusively high school with the exception of Hamilton. So I certainly feel prepared in that regard.

I have also worked with a similar student population before. I’ve been in the neighborhood.

Also, as far as the size of the school, I run a school of 900 kids, that’s co-located so we’re closer to 1000. Manual’s about the size of one of my grade levels.

That isn’t to make light of the challenge at Manual. But I have had experiences with very large schools. And I feel up to the challenge.

What’s your philosophy about how the school will run, its model? Manual has seen a No Excuses philosophy, it’s seen a social justice bent… 

So my approach is simply one that every kid matters and that we come together to put our best work forward to make sure every kid succeeds. No Excuses is something I’m familiar with. I think social justice is important too. I think it’s really a combination. But really my philosophy is, we work relentlessly, we work our hardest, and we put kids first.

What about discipline?

A restorative approach is very important to schools—to get at restoring the community when harm is done. I’m a big believer in that, but I’m also a big believer that we need to have a safe learning environment, and students first means safety first.

Discipline is a really challenging thing. You’re often weighing the needs of one student against the whole community. That’s a hard balancing act.

We’re trying to fight this battle of keeping kids in schools, but at the same time, if you’re doing that and you don’t put the right layers of systems in place, it can be perceived as, kids aren’t being held accountable.

What else should we know about your plans for Manual?

I’m really excited and continue to think that we should dream big. I’m looking forward to enhancing a narrative from a school that’s been having hard times to a school that’s on an upward trajectory and where kids can be found being wildly successful.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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.