‘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!

on the clock

After another low rating, Denver’s Manual High could face state intervention

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Denver’s storied but academically struggling Manual High School faces the possibility of state intervention next school year after earning five consecutive low ratings from the Colorado Department of Education. It is the only one of Denver’s more than 200 schools facing that risk.

Manual’s situation is noteworthy because Denver Public Schools generally has taken aggressive action toward low-performing schools before the law allows the state to step in. The district hasn’t shied away from replacing or closing struggling schools, which has earned it criticism from those who think the tactics are too harsh.

In fact, the district closed and reopened Manual more than a decade ago because of lagging test scores and declining enrollment. The controversial decision still evokes painful memories in the community. Since then, the school has cycled through leaders and repeated overhauls of its academic program.

Manual is not the first Denver school to earn five low ratings, which are based largely on annual test scores. But the other schools were either closed by the district or able to turn around their performance to avoid sanctions. District officials are confident Manual will turn it around, too.

The school has one more chance. If it earns a higher rating next year, the state will put on hold the threat of intervention, which could include conversion to a charter school or even closure. Two years of higher ratings would put Manual in the clear.

But the northeast Denver high school faces hurdles on its road to improvement, including that it doesn’t have a permanent leader. Its last principal – a charismatic Denver native and the architect of the school’s latest rebirth – resigned suddenly in March. An investigation found Nick Dawkins violated the district’s policy against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

The school has an interim principal and is searching for a permanent one. A search in the spring netted three candidates, but the top prospect turned down the job.

“Our focus is on making sure Manual is a great school for its students,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “We’re excited and confident about Manual moving forward.”

Manual is one of the district’s oldest high schools, and its alumni include several prominent Denverites, including the city’s current mayor. Last year, it served just over 300 students, 90 percent of whom were from low-income families and 96 percent of whom were students of color.

In preliminary school ratings recently released by the Colorado Department of Education, Manual earned the second-lowest: “priority improvement,” which is coded with the color orange. The ratings are based on state tests students took in the spring.

Alumna Lainie Hodges said she’s not surprised Manual did poorly by that measure. The students went through what she called “a year of constant trauma” that started with the deaths of a fellow student and a recent graduate, and continued with a headline-grabbing controversy over whether fans of an opposing high school football team had displayed a Confederate flag during a game against Manual.

Then, a month before students were scheduled to take the state-required PSAT and SAT tests, Manual’s popular principal resigned.

“That they didn’t show up and test well, I’m not surprised at all,” said Hodges, who graduated from Manual in 1997 and until earlier this year was the board chair of the Friends of Manual High School booster group. “Is it a measure of their talent and ability? Absolutely not.”

Recent graduate Elijah Beauford said he’s not surprised by the test scores, either. He said he himself struggled with tests as a student. But he excelled at the work he did in class and at home, encouraged by teachers with whom he said he had a “genuine connection.”

Many of those teachers were people of color, as was Dawkins, the former principal. Beauford, who transferred to Manual in his junior year from a school in Aurora, said he hadn’t ever attended a school where most of the staff, and the students sitting in the honors classes, looked like him.

“Seeing people who look like me in high-ranking positions of power, it’s subconsciously and consciously empowering,” said Beauford, who graduated in 2017.

That environment helped Beauford thrive. His confidence grew, his GPA shot up, and he went from a student who struggled with reading to one who consistently won first prize at high school speech competitions around the city. Beauford, who goes by the name Young Activist, has continued to give speeches and become involved with local education advocacy groups.

“I personally believe that the school doesn’t make the students, the students make the school,” Beauford said. People say Manual has a bad reputation, he said, but the reality is that “there’s a lot of good kids there who are in bad situations but still coming to school each and every day.”

There are two big caveats to Manual’s low state rating. The first is that districts can appeal the ratings of individual schools. State officials have until December to decide.

The second caveat is that Manual’s quandary is partly Denver Public Schools’ own making. The district has its own school rating system that it considers more rigorous. In cases where Denver rates a school lower than the state, the district asks the state to use the district’s rating instead. In three of the past five years, the state lowered Manual’s rating at the district’s request.

Crucially, in 2017, the district asked the state to lower Manual’s rating from yellow to orange. Yellow would have gotten Manual off the state “accountability clock.” (The clock refers to the amount of time low-performing schools and districts have to improve before the State Board of Education can order them take action.) But an orange rating kept it on.

There was also a year when Denver rated Manual higher than the state – and the state refused to raise its rating. That also had the effect of keeping Manual on the clock.

In an interview, Boasberg was quick to point out that Manual wouldn’t be on the clock had the district not requested the state lower Manual’s ratings. However, he was also gracious about the state’s role in ensuring all Colorado schools are meeting certain standards.

“We and (the Colorado Department of Education) have exactly the same objective, which is to ensure every student at Manual gets a great education,” Boasberg said. “We have collaborated, and we continue to collaborate, closely with CDE.”

Boasberg said his confidence about Manual’s future stems from its recently revised “innovation plan,” which describes the steps the school will take to boost student performance. Manual was one of Colorado’s first “innovation schools,” which means it has permission to waive certain state and district rules, as well as parts of the teachers union contract. The idea behind innovation schools is that increased flexibility will lead to better student outcomes.

Manual’s plan, which was submitted by Dawkins, includes more time for teacher training and more opportunities for students to take college-level courses. Manual is one of 20 state-designated “early college high schools,” meaning students can earn an associate degree or up to 60 college credits by the time they graduate high school.

But a new state law aimed at reining in the cost of early colleges limits the time students can take to complete their associate degree or earn their 60 credits. As a result, Denver Public Schools is redesigning its six early college high schools, including Manual.

Manual also has a unique career education program called the Med School at Manual geared toward students interested in careers in health care. The program offers classes in topics such as human anatomy and sports medicine, as well as job shadows, field trips, and internships.

Denver Public Schools has pumped an additional $3 million into Manual since 2015 in an attempt to help improve the school’s performance. The district refers to that money as “tiered support funding,” and Manual received it because of its low school ratings.

If the school’s state rating holds steady at orange this year, and it doesn’t improve next year, its leaders will find themselves before the State Board of Education in the spring of 2020.

Hodges said she hopes state officials, when deciding which action to take, consider Manual’s rich history, its recent trauma, and district decisions that she thinks hurt the school. She said she hopes state officials see Manual as worth fighting for.

“Because we do,” she said.

Welcome Back

‘They deserve the best:’ A Denver principal talks about restarting a school in her home city

PHOTO: Courtesy John H. Amesse Elementary
Students at John Amesse Elementary smile for the camera. The school is being "restarted" this year and is now known as John H. Amesse Elementary.

Today is the first official day of school in Denver. But students at John H. Amesse Elementary in the far northeast part of the city got a head start when they returned to class last week.

Angelina Walker.
The school is undergoing a “restart” this year in an attempt to improve chronically low student test scores. John H. Amesse has a new principal, a new plan, and new flexibility over how it spends its money and time. (Hence, the early start; research has shown more time in school can boost scores for students from low-income families.) The school also has a slightly new name: It now includes the middle initial H.

We sat down with new principal Angelina Walker to talk about her passion for working in the city where she grew up and her vision for John H. Amesse, where nearly all students come from low-income families. Walker spent a year preparing for her new role. While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations last year, Walker learned, planned, and strategized for this one as part of a turnaround strategy Denver Public Schools calls “year zero.”

“I’ve always wanted to be an educator,” she told Chalkbeat. “I knew from when I was 2 years old that I was going to be teacher. And I knew I wanted to be a teacher that opened a school. So it’s kind of just really serendipitous, but also I feel pretty privileged and blessed.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to teaching, even when you were 2?

They talk about callings. I can’t describe it. I just knew. I don’t have educators in my family, so I’m not sure where it came from. But any game I ever played, anything like that, was teaching.

Did you go to school when you were very little?

I did. I’m a Denver native. I grew up in the northeast, far northeast area. When I was real little, I grew up in Park Hill, off of 35th and Elm, and I went to a little day care-slash-school a block away called Watch-Care Academy. It was a predominantly African-American school.

You said that when you applied to become a principal in Denver Public Schools, you asked to lead a school in the northeast because you wanted to serve the community where you grew up. Tell me a bit about what this community means to you.

My community means a lot to me. When I grew up – and this was back in ‘80s and ‘90s, and into the 2000’s for high school – the image that was out there, whether true or not, was that the public education system, at least in the northeast, was not that great, was unsafe.

There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of issues with our community. And out of everybody that I lived with or grew up with, I’m one of the very few that graduated high school. I have a lot of people I grew up with who are creating a life for themselves where they are, so I applaud them. But I have also seen some of the inequities in terms of society.

The importance my family placed on education really impacted and shaped the direction that I went. I mean, it did help that I loved education and I loved teaching. But being able to provide a schooling environment in my neighborhood that challenges what anybody says about our community is of utmost importance to me. Us writing our own narratives, instead of people writing our narratives for us, is very important to me.

I got into education because I wanted to be a teacher. Not necessarily to help, but just to educate, to teach. I became a principal to challenge systemic inequities. My community, they deserve the best. And so they deserve the best leader.

What have some of the challenges been at John Amesse?

Some of challenges that, generally, I have seen are lack of resources. With this turnaround, it’s really refreshing because I have gotten some resources to give kids what they deserve.

We are building a STEAM lab. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.) We have a lot of social and emotional supports. Right now, we have a psychologist, a social worker, and a social work intern. We have three members on our special education team, a full-time nurse, and the Center for Family Opportunity.

There’s a narrative out there about John Amesse that it was “a mess.” I think that the last couple of years, it’s really changed around. So really reclaiming that narrative is important.

I do think that we’ll continue – and then accelerate even more – with what the previous principal, Charmaine, did in terms of starting to look at our instruction based off of our data. So just bringing in some of those systems and tightening those up some, and having teachers own that.

We also want to maintain the culture that’s been built here. John Amesse has a wonderful, amazing culture. It’s just beautiful to walk around the school when the kids are here.

What are some of the things that make it special?

The involvement with the community has always been something that I value and I will strive hard to continue. Just celebrating kids. (In previous years, the school) did little things that we’re continuing, like celebrating attendance or shouting-out kids.

We plan on continuing a lot of the traditions – white linen lunches, and different things for kids – and adding on to them awards assemblies and things like that.

What’s a white linen lunch?

A white linen lunch is for students that have a certain percentage for their attendance. Basically, they get their lunch served to them on white linen cloths. They love it. There’s little decorations and then they get a little dessert at the end.

Can you think of an example of a really impactful conversation with a student or with a family that informed your work during your ‘year zero’?

There were a couple. I had a – we called them pop-up sessions – with a group of kids. We were in the new STEAM lab, but it was just that big, open space.

The question I put out there was, ‘If you could imagine this space to be anything you wanted it to be, what would you make it as and why?’ Then they had to create, from cut-out magazines, these pictures showing what they wanted in the space.

At first, I thought they wanted a makerspace type of area, and that’s where we were heading originally. And it basically came out that they wanted a space where they could build and explode and do different things like that – and they wanted a space where literacy was involved. Literacy, including drama and the arts.

Taking all their suggestions, I started researching and the STEAM lab is what popped out from everything they wanted. They didn’t want to do the traditional makerspace. They really wanted to have science, but then art and drama, and so that’s hopefully what our space will reflect.

The other conversation that I really remember is, I had a conversation with a parent, and the mom started crying. She was just saying that she’s really excited for the direction of the school, she feels there’s going to be solid leadership, all the typical things.

But then she really went into that she never felt that her child had been heard before. And so being able to provide that space for them to provide that feedback (through the pop-up sessions and other design opportunities) was important for this parent, in particular.

Is there an overall vision for John H. Amesse?

Our vision is really to support change-makers in our community. It’s really to get students to actualize their power and utilize that power to support the development of their community.

It’s really a grassroots kind of approach – and, with that being said, also giving them the tools they need and the access they need to navigate systems they maybe traditionally haven’t had access to. It’s just as important to be able to navigate things like PARCC (the state literacy and math tests) – those gatekeepers – so those are not barriers for them.

Can you tell me a little bit about the name change?

We didn’t want the trauma that ‘restart’ causes to have that same impact here. We did feel a name change was necessary, just to start reclaiming that narrative. Instead of being a school that’s “a mess,” putting that H in there broke up that saying.

We’re presenting ourselves in a different light. But we didn’t want to change it a whole lot because we really didn’t want to traumatize the community.

As part of the restart, John H. Amesse is now part of a school network called the Montbello Children’s Network with nearby McGlone Academy, a K-8 school that has shown a lot of academic growth. How do the schools work together?

Last year, it really started with me doing some leadership learning from McGlone and from Principal Sara Goodall, in particular. Now it’s evolved into that I have a network of school leaders I can rely on to support me with everything from professional development creation to just a general I-need-to-talk-to-someone kind of thing.

We do a lot of cross-collaboration professional development as staff. For example, this week my ECE teachers are going to McGlone and doing a network-wide training there.

Sara and I have a really close relationship, as well. This year, we’ll be meeting a couple times a week for a few hours. But we text each other, call each other all the time.

I think John H. Amesse has one of the best mascots of all Denver elementary schools, a multi-colored roadrunner. Is it going to stay?

It’s definitely staying.

Parents overwhelmingly said they didn’t want to change the mascot. We said we would honor that. Because of branding purposes with the network, we did have to change the look of the roadrunner. But we wanted to make sure the roadrunner was still there.

We also wanted to incorporate the school colors that were (previously) chosen. Going back to that whole trauma of the restart, the colors have remained the same. Their uniform shirts will be those colorful colors. They can still wear their old uniforms, and if they’re passing them on to siblings and things like that. We wanted to honor the voice of the community with that choice.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to add about what’s coming up this year, or what this restart will mean and how it will feel for families?

I really hope that it starts to feel like we’re starting to come back together as a Montbello community. And that it’s a safe place, but also a place where kids are going to be challenged academically, as well as supported socially and emotionally. And that our community feels that their voice is heard, and that they are getting the education they deserve.