Shake up

Manual High principal resigns along with chair of booster group

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
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.

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”