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

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.