‘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!

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.

coaching the coaches

Some of Denver’s top teachers will get training to better help their colleagues

PHOTO: John Leyba/Denver Post
Joey Denoncourt was a teacher coach at College View Elementary in 2016. He is not part of the first fellowship cohort.

Twenty Denver teachers are part of a new pilot project to invest even more resources in what the school district considers a key strategy: having teachers coach other teachers.

Denver Public Schools has a name for these teacher coaches: “senior team leads.” They are paid a stipend on top of their regular salaries to split their time between teaching in their own classrooms and observing other teachers. They give the teachers feedback, help them plan lessons, and, in some cases, formally evaluate them, just like a principal would. Data shows teachers like the approach and their students benefit from it.

A new yearlong fellowship that kicked off Monday will give a small number of these teacher coaches monthly training on how to get better at a role district officials say is all too rare in public education. The Thrive Fellowship will include conversations with leadership experts and opportunities for teachers to learn from each other what’s working in their schools.

Some of that was already happening in the first hour of the fellowship’s inaugural get-together. By way of introduction, the teachers shared a memorable experience they’d had in the role. Several talked about what they did to break through to a resistant teacher. One shared how she organized “family dinners” for teachers to get to know one another outside of work.

Yet another talked about using her dual role to bring together her school’s “disjointed” special education department and come up with a better way to teach students with disabilities.

“Because I was alongside and teaching with my other team members, it was what we need to kickstart and become a more collaborative team,” teacher Rosie Britt said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the fellowship “a very intentional investment.”

“Each one of these leaders has an impact – a large impact,” he said of the 20 teachers. “So how do we help them learn and grow to have that impact be as powerful as possible?”

Denver Public Schools has already invested heavily in teacher coaching. Officially known as “teacher leadership and collaboration,” or TLC, it began in the 2013-14 school year as a grant-funded pilot with 51 teacher coaches at 14 schools. It’s now in nearly all of the more than 160 district-run schools, and there are more than 500 teachers coaching other teachers.

The expansion was partly funded by a tax increase passed by Denver voters in 2016. The Thrive Fellowship is being funded by a $2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The grant is also funding other leadership work and will pay for a second fellowship cohort in the 2019-20 school year focused on special education teacher coaches. Being a special education teacher can be isolating, district officials explained, and some of the district’s biggest achievement gaps are between students with and without disabilities.

The district created the teacher coach role in part to encourage great teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave to become assistant principals or principals. The ultimate goal, officials say, is to boost student achievement by helping teachers get better at what they do.

District officials have been tracking whether that’s happening. They’ve found that the students of teachers who were supported by coaches for two or more years made more academic progress on state literacy and math tests than the students of teachers who were coached for less time or not coached at all, according to data recently presented to the school board.

And survey results show teachers like the model. When asked which leaders at their school were effective, 89 percent of teachers said the teacher who coaches them was an effective leader. Only 82 percent said their principal was effective.

The idea of the fellowship is to raise those numbers even higher, district officials said.

Pete Martinez is one of the 20 teachers in the fellowship. He works at Joe Shoemaker Elementary in southeast Denver, where he spends half his time coaching teachers and half his time teaching kindergarten and first-grade students who are struggling in reading.

He said the dual role is most powerful when teachers “can see a support partner, a coach, that is sometimes teaching beside them and in many ways owning the success of their kids.” He hopes the fellowship gives him and the other teachers time to pick each others’ brains.

“What are other schools grappling with?” Martinez said. “What are the solutions they are already thinking about and how can we transfer that to other schools, to my own building?”