Shake up

Manual High principal resigns along with chair of booster group

PHOTO: via Nick Dawkins
Nick Dawkins.

The principal of Manual High School, Nickolas Dawkins, has resigned after helming the northeast Denver school for two and a half years.

Numerous people affiliated with the school community – including the Friends of Manual High School booster group – posted about the surprising development on social media Friday afternoon. A district spokesperson confirmed the resignation.

A letter to the school community from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova highlighted Dawkins’ accomplishments: Manual, which was once shuttered for low-performance, saw its school rating improve during Dawkins’s tenure, more than 90 percent of students say they’re satisfied with their experience, and a majority of families say they would recommend the school. It did not offer any reason for the resignation.

The district provided a copy of Dawkins’s resignation letter. In it, he wrote, “I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me.”

But Dawkins wrote that he’s proud of his time at Manual. “DPS giving me the chance to go home and make some things right by the students there is a gift I will always be thankful for,” he wrote.

The board chair of Friends of Manual High School, Lainie Hodges, also resigned, according to a post Friday afternoon on the group’s public Facebook page.

“This role and work has been an honor and a privilege for me and words cannot express how grateful I am to Nick Dawkins for all that he has given,” said the post, signed by Hodges. “It was a pleasure to work alongside him and I will forever treasure what Manual is and has been to us.”

Dawkins grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from nearby East High School. He once said a teacher who became like a godmother to him inspired him to go into education. Dawkins taught English at Denver’s South High School before becoming a school leader. He was principal of Hamilton Middle School prior to taking the job at Manual.

“Before I came to Manual I was told by a leader, ‘You are going to ruin your career,'” Dawkins wrote in his resignation letter. “‘You are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The school and kids down there are dying on the vine. There is a reason no one wants to lead there. It is highly likely you will fail.’

“After sleeping on it, I returned the next day with the statement, ‘I don’t think going back to my community and telling 300 kids we love them and haven’t forgot about them is a failure. And if that is failure and I ruin my career, I guess I will have to get another career. They deserve it,'” Dawkins wrote.

Manual serves just over 300 students this year. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent are students of color.

The school has experienced significant leadership turnover in the past decade, as well as repeated overhauls of its academic program. In 2006, former superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator, made the controversial decision to close the storied but struggling school, which sparked sharp criticism and backlash from the community.

The district promised to remake Manual into one of the city’s premier high schools. But by 2014, it was once again the lowest-performing high school in Denver as judged by state test scores.

This year, Manual is rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color coded scale. Just shy of 19 percent of ninth graders met expectations on state literacy tests last year.

Dawkins said his vision for Manual was to change the 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.” Just two weeks ago, Dawkins hosted an event with Mayor Michael Hancock, a high-profile alum, highlighting “Manual’s Med School,” which offers advanced classes intended to help students earn college credits and go on to careers in the medical field.

Community organizer and Manual alum Candi CdeBaca said Dawkins represented what students wanted in a leader in the aftermath of the tumultuous closure and reopening.

“So many principals and teachers and administrators in schools like Manual are trying to teach kids how to leave their community and disconnect from their community, and he was trying to teach kids to be part of their community and be change agents in their community,” she said. “He knew that everything that we needed is right here in our backyard.”

Denver Public Schools is expected early next week to announce the interim principal, spokesman Will Jones said. The district will also announce the details of the process to select a permanent replacement, he said.

Read Dawkins’s full resignation letter below, as well as the letter from Boasberg and Cordova.

Bureau chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.