Big Shoes

Interim Manual High principal named as district begins search for permanent leader

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Manual High School.

Renard Simmons, principal of the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, has been named interim principal of Manual High School following the unexpected resignation of Manual’s leader late last week.

DC21, as it’s called, is a nearby public school serving middle and high school students. Simmons will split his time between DC21 and Manual, school district spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said.

Simmons is not interested in becoming the permanent leader of Manual, Mitchell said. The district will conduct a search for a new principal, a process Mitchell said the district expects will take about six weeks. Meanwhile, students staged a sit-in Monday to ask for recently resigned principal Nickolas Dawkins to return.

Dawkins said in a letter to Manual’s staff that he resigned Friday after learning the district had received complaints of a hostile working environment at the school.

Manual has experienced significant leadership turnover in the past decade, as well as repeated overhauls of its academic program, including a shuttering and reopening with the promise to make it into one of the city’s premier high schools. This year, Manual was rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color coded scale.

The school serves just over 300 students, 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent of whom are students of color.

Senior Jabari Lottie said he was shocked and “extremely distraught” to learn Dawkins had resigned. The 18-year-old said the former principal, who grew up in the northeast Denver neighborhood surrounding Manual, had raised academic expectations at the school while at the same time giving students a voice in the changes. Manual recently became an “early college,” which means students can stay for additional years to take college classes for free.

Lottie said he hopes the next principal is as compassionate as Dawkins was.

“We deserve to be treated as students but also as human beings,” Lottie said. “He did really well with that. He would let us know the human qualities he was feeling. He would talk to us and give us personal reflections from his life. That connectivity really made him a good principal.”

Simmons also grew up in the neighborhood and “attended classes at Manual, his father’s alma mater, before graduating from East High School,” according to a letter from district officials to Manual families. In his time as principal of DC21, the school’s rating has improved. It’s now “green,” the district’s second-highest rating. On social media, community activist Brother Jeff Fard called Simmons an excellent leader.

Simmons knows the students at Manual and the students know him, Mitchell said. After hearing Dawkins had resigned on Friday, Simmons went to Manual to help support the students, she said. He was back again Monday, visiting classrooms.

“I am here to serve, I am here to help,” Simmons told students, according to the letter to families. “I know the importance of education and that’s why we’re here. We’re going to rally around each other.”

Community member Lainie Hodges, who graduated from Manual in 1997, said the alumni community was devastated by Dawkins’s resignation and confused by what led to it. After Dawkins announced his decision, Hodges resigned as chair of the Friends of Manual High School booster group, a move she said was in part “to make a statement.”

“I appreciate so much the way he was able to lead in a way that encouraged everyone to step into their greatness,” Hodges said, adding that Dawkins’s legacy will be that he taught “kids and staff and faculty what they already had within themselves, that they weren’t lacking anything, that they needed to allow their own gifts, abilities, talent, and light to shine.”

She said the allegation of a hostile work environment is “not what I experienced in that building.” Community volunteers would comment that the atmosphere at Manual fed their souls, she said.

“If there was something else going on, it was shielded from everyone else,” Hodges said.

Dawkins has said he doesn’t know the details of the complaints. His letter notes that Manual students and staff experienced several traumatic events this school year, including the deaths of two students, a Thanksgiving Day shooting in the parking lot, and a high-profile dispute over whether the opposing team at a September football game displayed a Confederate flag.

In his letter, Dawkins called an incident in which a Manual employee brought marijuana into the building for a science experiment a “turning point” and said he held his staff accountable.

“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,” Dawkins said in the letter, which was posted on social media Saturday. “I understood the trauma from the year was not only informing my decisions, but the decisions and perspectives of those closest to me.”

He said he was “heartbroken” when he learned last week that the district “did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment.” He said he began to draft his resignation, which was made public Friday.

School board member Jennifer Bacon said she was at Manual Monday morning to welcome and support students. Bacon, whose northeast Denver school board district includes Manual, watched as a group staged a sit-in to demand Dawkins come back.

“In all candor, this school represents a lot of what DPS needs to come to terms with,” Bacon said. She referred to several factors, from the school’s small size and the impact that has on its budget to how the district helps students and educators deal with trauma.

“I really personally want to commit to wrapping our arms around the school and being honest about how we got here and holding ourselves accountable to that,” she said. “It’s enough already.”

Bacon called for “a true study” of what happened and what the district could have done better, “even if this did come down to relationships or leadership style or strife within the ranks.” On social media, members of the school community have discussed disagreements among top administrators at the school.

Bacon emphasized that the community must play an integral role in selecting the next leader.

“This has to be the most transparent principal hiring process we’ve ever done,” she said

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.”

Repairing harm

Inside one of three Denver schools serving as a national model for how to do discipline differently

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Principal Scott Wolf talks with a student in 2015.

What struck Erika Strauss Chavarria the most was the mutual respect she saw between adults and teenagers at Denver’s North High School. Having watched her own students in Maryland get handcuffed by armed police officers in the hallways, the Spanish teacher said North seemed almost like “a utopian society.”

“It’s like the little things that make this building great,” Strauss Chavarria said. After she and other visitors sat in on a history class, the buzz was not about the lesson but about how the teacher trusted students enough to go to the bathroom without asking permission.

North is one of three Denver schools serving as national examples of restorative justice. Educators and community members from around Colorado and the country have been invited to spend a day in one of these schools to see what it looks like when teachers and students are encouraged to sit down and hash out their conflicts.

Restorative justice – or restorative practices, as Denver Public Schools calls it – is an approach to school discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In action, it looks like students or teachers who are in conflict having a conversation about how their actions affected each other and what they can do to fix the situation. Advocates say the method reduces punitive discipline and builds relationships that feed a positive school culture.

Denver began dabbling in restorative justice more than a decade ago with a pilot program at North and three other schools. It’s now part of the district’s discipline code, and officials said more than 40 percent of Denver’s 207 schools have staff dedicated to restorative justice.

The district has seen its number of suspensions drop even as its enrollment has grown. In 2010, the district suspended nearly 9,000 of its 78,000 students, according to district and state statistics. Last school year it suspended just shy of 4,500 of its 91,000 students.

The length and breadth of Denver’s experience make it a good exemplar, said Dwanna Nicole of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization is part of a coalition that began arranging the visits last year. The coalition aims to host 15 visits a year split between North, Skinner Middle School, and Hallett Academy elementary school.

The visits are free for educators and community members, and the slots fill up quickly, Nicole said. The funding comes from a three-year grant from another coalition member: the National Education Association.

Teachers unions aren’t always fans of this approach. Some teachers worry that a soft touch will leave them without enough tools to deal with unruly students and might even make classrooms less safe. Denver’s union once had similar concerns but is now part of the coalition. The national union joined to inform more teachers about the approach, said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s human and civil rights department.

There isn’t a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice, and studies haven’t found a direct causal link between restorative practices and better student outcomes. However, existing research consistently finds decreases in the use of suspensions and improved school culture.

The idea behind the visits, organizers said, is to answer questions common even among those who’ve been trained in the basics: What does restorative justice look like when it’s done well? What does it feel like? How do I know if I’m in a school that’s “restorative?”

They’re also meant to energize educators who may find themselves the lone advocate for the method in a community of skeptics. “They’re able to go back home and say to their principal, ‘I saw it. This is what they did,’” Nicole said. “It renews the work.”

The recent visit to North gave the 15 visitors, 14 of whom were from other states, a chance to pick the brains of administrators, teachers, and students who buy into restorative justice.

Kelsey Binggeli, a Spanish teacher who’s been at North for three years, fielded questions about how she gets to know her students and what she does when they’re late to class, an issue several visitors acknowledged was a problem at their schools.

“When they get to my class late?” Binggeli said. “Invite them in. ‘Welcome.’”

The visitors exchanged incredulous looks. Several remarked that wouldn’t fly at their school.

Lisbeth Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North, explained that students who are tardy get a phone call home. But unbeknownst to them, she said, all first-period tardies are excused. It’s a decision she said administrators made after hearing students’ stories of having to drop off younger brothers and sisters or take unreliable public transportation.

Vargas is teaching a new class at North this semester that gives students even more of a role in restorative justice by training them to facilitate conversations for low-level offenses, such as using a cell phone in class. In recruiting students for the class, the school aimed for a mix of ages and discipline records, inviting those who’d been in trouble and those who hadn’t.

Sophomore Laila Arguello said that before taking the class, she ditched school so much that Vargas had her mom on speed-dial. She was quick to escalate confrontations, she said, and often found herself part of the conversations she’s now learning to lead.

“You know how girls are,” Arguello said. If someone was gossiping about her, she said, “I’d go up to them and be like, ‘You want to fight? I’ll fight you.’ … Now I’m like, ‘If you have an issue, we can talk about it. I’m not going to waste my time on arguing and fighting with you.’”

Other students said the class has made them think of themselves differently, as leaders and role models. “My grades have flipped after being in this class,” said sophomore Francisco Alvarado-Melchor. He said his attendance has improved, too.

Principal Scott Wolf is a restorative justice evangelist. Even though it was in place before his tenure, he said the culture at North was still very top-down. He’s worked hard in the last five years to give students more of a voice, he said. The school got rid of its strict dress code and restarted the student council. All job candidates are interviewed by a panel of students and asked specific questions about discipline. Their answers can be a deal-breaker, he said.

The visitors were stunned. Our principals spend their time worried about test scores, they said.

“I will take lower test scores any day of the week,” Wolf told the group. “I don’t need to have the very best test scores if families and kids feel welcome and included.”

But Wolf was also honest about some of North’s challenges. He readily admitted that not all teachers are on board with restorative justice. While the district does provide some support, he said he’s had to do a lot things on his own. And although he said he strives to hire teachers who reflect the student population, which is 75 percent Hispanic, most teachers are white.

North also still suspends students. Last year, district statistics show the 1,000-student school had a 9 percent suspension rate, which is higher than some other similarly sized high schools.

If students are fighting and their conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, dean Marisa Lucio said they’ll often be suspended. The difference is that in order to come back, the students and their families must participate in a meeting and restorative conversation.

“There’s always that skill building that happens,” Lucio said.

This year, Wolf said the school has issued half as many suspensions as it had at this time last year: 33 compared to 67. He said North is “committed to data integrity,” meaning it’s honest about recording when students are not in class for discipline reasons, whether they’re sent home or still at school cooling down after a conflict or thinking through what happened.

At the end of the day, the visitors gathered to debrief. Kevin Gilbert, the equity director of a school district near Baltimore, said what struck him the most was a brief conversation he had with one of the students who was part of the restorative justice class. The student had recently transferred to North, and when Gilbert asked about the difference between his old school and his new one, the student answered, “The adults in this building care about me.”

“That’s what all this work is all about: trying to change the culture and climate of our schools,” Gilbert said. “This is not about implementing a program. It’s implementing a way of life.”