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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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.