Follow Up

Investigation finds former Manual High principal Nick Dawkins violated district harassment policy, document shows

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High School in northeast Denver.

Denver school district officials have concluded the former principal of one of the city’s highest-profile high schools violated the district’s policy against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, according to a document obtained by Chalkbeat.

Nick Dawkins resigned as principal of Manual High School in early March after learning Denver Public Schools received complaints that he created a hostile work environment.

Dawkins was a popular school leader in a community that has seen repeated and contentious changes, and his sudden departure shocked students, parents, and community members.

The district hired an outside firm called the Employers Council to investigate the complaints. The confidential nature of the complaints and investigation created a vacuum of information in which rumors and theories have grown. A letter from a school district attorney obtained by Chalkbeat confirms the investigation’s findings, but it does not shed light on what exactly Dawkins was accused of doing.

The letter says that “based on the totality of the evidence that was gathered by our internal and external investigators, we have concluded that Mr. Dawkins violated DPS Board Policy GBA and GBA-R1.”

The first policy prohibits harassment based on a person’s race, gender, and several other “protected classes.” The second explains the procedure for investigating complaints.

It also defines harassment as “unwelcome, hostile, and offensive verbal, written, or physical conduct based on or directed at a person’s protected class” that results in certain outcomes. Those include physical, emotional, or mental harm; the creation of a hostile work environment; or using the satisfaction of a sexual demand as the basis for an employment decision.

Dawkins referred all questions to his attorney, Wayne Vaden. On Tuesday afternoon, Vaden offered to provide Chalkbeat an apology he said Dawkins had previously written. In it, Dawkins apologizes for using “harsh and inappropriate language” with his leadership team after learning that staff members brought marijuana to the school to use in a classroom experiment.

Later on Tuesday, Vaden and Dawkins sent a revised apology that was more broad. It says:

“I do apologize to anyone I may have offended or caused any harm during my tenure at Manual. My intentions were only to help Manual High School soar to new heights, and it deeply saddens me to know there are those who feel I did not value our relationships or friendship. I wish only the best for my previous students, employees, and the DPS community.”

The Denver alternative weekly newspaper Westword previously cited anonymous sources as saying the complaints included accusations that Dawkins made inappropriate racial and sexual comments. Chalkbeat also interviewed a complainant who, speaking on the condition that she not be identified, said her complaint included allegations he made those types of comments.

Asked to comment on those allegations this week, Vaden said: “We can’t respond to unknown, anonymous allegations.” He previously told Westword that Dawkins “adamantly denied any allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Vaden emphasized that he and Dawkins “do not know the underlying facts” of the complaints. In fact, he said neither he nor Dawkins have received a copy of the complaints or the findings.

Dawkins was not interviewed as part of the investigation, either. District spokeswoman Anna Alejo said investigators requested an interview, but Dawkins and Vaden never agreed to one.

Vaden said investigators never followed up with him to schedule it.

“My position is they dropped the ball,” he said.

As for why Vaden and Dawkins have not received notice of the findings, district spokesman Will Jones said Denver Public Schools is “waiting for a response from Mr. Dawkins on whether he would like to be interviewed before sending a final letter with the conclusions.”

Alejo said the district continues to be willing to schedule an interview with Dawkins.

Manual is a storied high school in northeast Denver with a host of prominent alumni. But it has suffered from significant leadership turnover in the years since it was reopened following a controversial decision in 2006 to shutter it because of poor academic performance.

The school serves just over 300 students this year. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent are students of color. Manual is currently rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale. Just shy of 19 percent of ninth graders met expectations on state literacy tests last year.

Dawkins grew up in the neighborhood and was principal at another Denver school before taking the helm at Manual in 2015. Many credited him with improving the school’s culture and reputation, and with establishing programs that offered students more rigorous courses.

A search is underway for a new principal for Manual. A forum for community members to meet principal candidates that was scheduled for Wednesday has been rescheduled for May 1 so the search committee can continue to meet with candidates over the next week.

As for Dawkins, Denver charter school network DSST extended him a job offer that is now on hold, network spokeswoman Heather Lamm said. “We are awaiting disclosure of additional details on the investigation before making any additional decisions,” Lamm 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/Denverite.com
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.