‘Why I Left’

Former Manual principal resigned after learning of hostile work environment allegation

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Former Manual High School principal Nickolas Dawkins said in a letter to the school’s staff that he resigned after learning a few days ago that Denver Public Schools received complaints about a hostile work environment at the school.

“It was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators,” he wrote in the letter, which was posted on social media Saturday, a day after his resignation was made public. “I began to draft a resignation letter.”

Denver Public Schools responded to Dawkins’s letter with a statement that said, “In any situations where concerns are raised, the person about whom those concerns are raised has a full opportunity to respond to those concerns and present all relevant facts.”

It’s not clear from Dawkins’s letter what the hostile work environment complaints were about. Reached by phone, he said he couldn’t elaborate. In the letter, he described holding his staff accountable for an incident in which members of Manual’s leadership team allowed marijuana to be brought into the school for a science experiment while he was traveling for a training.

“This all came to a head when, two days ago, I learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment,” the letter says. “I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students was questioned.”

Dawkins wrote that the complaints were the most recent challenge in a year filled with them. Other challenges, he wrote, included having to bury “two beloved students,” supporting undocumented students during politically uncertain times, and helping the school community cope with the fear caused by a Thanksgiving Day shooting in Manual’s parking lot.

Dawkins also cited an intense public backlash, including being called racial slurs, after a football game at which Manual supporters say the opposing team displayed the Confederate flag. Officials from that school denied the reports, and the incident became the subject of prolonged media attention.

He wrote that he “shared the sentiment” of a student who asked him, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while?”

Dawkins said the all-encompassing nature of his work at Manual had taken a toll on his family and his personal life. He also cited a recent report on the difficulties encountered by black educators in Denver Public Schools.

“The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart,” he wrote. “When you add turnaround leadership and being a leader of color to that it can really become complex, difficult, and you can often end up feeling like you are in a no-win situation most of the time.”

Denver Public Schools said in its statement that the district supports its principals: “We appreciate the very hard work and challenges our school leaders face, particularly in today’s difficult political climate, and we are fully committed to supporting them.”

Here is the full text of Dawkins’s letter:

Why I Left Denver Public Schools

I never thought I would leave Manual High School this school year. I was so looking forward to graduation and graduating next year’s class of seniors who was the first class I came in with. This decision has been incredibly difficult for me and it is important to share why I resigned.

I looked into my wife’s eyes yesterday morning and I could see the toll that my service has had on my family. The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart. When you add turnaround leadership and being a leader of color to that it can really become complex, difficult, and you can often end up feeling like you are in a no-win situation most of the time. The design of our current system makes it extremely difficult to navigate the politics, communications and varying stakeholder desires,especially when you add in the essential elements of equity and culturally responsive school leadership that puts students first. Through my career and at Manual I have stood tall in the face of so many challenges and always stood by my students.

This year’s challenges have proved to be some of the most difficult I have ever encountered. In the first months of the school year, we buried two beloved students and provided crisis teams for our students and community. We, like many other schools, were taken off-guard by the recent DPS SPF ratings as we started the school year. Our school was devastated by the results of the SPF as all the predictors we had up to that point showed us finally taking Manual to Green.

As we processed the fallout from this revelation, we encountered the well documented football game in which our students and community reported being hurt by racial slurs, and images of what they believed was a confederate flag. For weeks as this situation played out I was targeted by those that called me a nigger and vowed to bring harm to me. The repeal of the Dream Act, at play as well, rocked our school as DACA students feared and some students begin to report the deportation of family members. A gun soon found in our school would also heighten the tension and anxiety of our employees, students, parents, faculty and staff. Through all of this, our amazing teachers and staff remained committed to our students through their trauma and insecurities, overcoming the anxieties of day-to-day headlines. That commitment unwavering, Manual had the highest graduation rate in close to a decade.

When we finally had a well-deserved fall break, we learned of a brutal and vicious slaying that took place in our parking lot as we served up Thanksgiving dinner to our families. The tension and anxiety seemed unescapable. As winter break brought rejuvenation, we came back ready for recruiting for School Choice and preparing for our upcoming SAT/PSAT examinations. In our first week back in January, I traveled with a group of teachers to learn advance critical reading strategies to bring back to students in their classrooms. On my first day gone, I learned that members of my leadership team allowed a non-Manual employee and employee new to Manual to light tobacco and bring marijuana inside the school for a science experiment, without parent permission. I was dumbfounded as our school board policy clearly bars drugs on campus. This event was a turning point and I held my team accountable.

I remain disappointed in the action to approve a clear violation of school policy and the message it sent to our kids and community, especially in the light of the rough year we were having. I was emotional, I was sad, I was extremely disappointed, and embarrassed. One student asked me, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while.” I shared her sentiments. I gave my best to move forward although I began to hear and see actions that were clearly contradictory to our values and aimed to hurt me. I understood the trauma from the year was not only informing my decisions, but the decisions and perspectives of those closest to me.

This all came to a head when two days ago, I learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment. I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students, was questioned. The next day it was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators. I began to draft a resignation letter that was intended only for senior leadership, which was subsequently shared with the public.

One may ask, why not stay and fight these allegations? The answer for me again lies in what is best for my family’s health and what is to be gained. With over 90% staff and student approval on my recent Manual DPS Collaborate survey and with 16 years of exemplary service with similar or higher percentages of staff and student approval, DPS took action contrary to my record of service. It is with my deep belief in the DPS core values that I chose now to find another way to serve.

I stand now seeking nothing more but to get the time to heal from not only this year, but the past 16 years. Dr. Sharon Bailey’s recent report on the experience of Black educators in DPS captures years of struggle that I shared with many colleagues. I need to tend to my family and to my own health, as my passion for supporting students and families at Manual has now encompassed both my private and professional life. I have never really had the time to take care of my home, in looking after the home for our beautiful students and community at Manual.

The role of the Principal is currently one mired in concerns of student safety and mental health management, both for the students and the staff that serve them. Everyday fears of gun violence and school shootings are combined with the overall stories of trauma our society is currently involved in. It became clear to me that I would not be able to serve without the support of my leadership team. With an ever-increasing focus on what schools and school leaders are doing wrong through allegations, public attacks and high stakes testing connected to school closure, the priority of the students I so dearly love could be quickly lost. I refuse to let that happen to the students and families of Manual.

The students at Manual should know I will continue to love and support them in my new adventures and that the time we shared was a most profound and powerful experience. I shared my heart and love with you all and it was all genuine. I will still be here for you. As I cared for you I must care for my family as well. Don’t stop shining. Remember, Manual is where the light is.

Nick Dawkins

Go T-Bolts!


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”