Three schools, one building, many reforms
Five years after shifting from a high-performing magnet school to a neighborhood school in one of Denver's poorest areas, Manual High School has ceased to exist.Skip to next paragraph
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It hasn't been torn down, or even taken over by the state and reconstituted as a charter school an ever-looming threat for failing Colorado schools.
It simply split up.
At first glance, not much has changed. More than a thousand students, sporting tongue piercings, headphones, or the latest hairdos, pour through the doors of Manual's sprawling brick building each morning. The powerhouse basketball team has remained together, and all the students still go to the same blue and red cafeteria at lunchtime. They are just now starting to identify themselves as students of Millennium Quest, Leadership, or Arts and Cultural Studies high schools, instead of simply Manual.
But below the surface, three distinct schools not the more common schools-within-schools are operating. The faculty and administration at each have just 350 or so students to get to know, and each school has a focus area: science and math, business and government, language and arts.
The breakup is only the most visible of the reforms. Placed at the very bottom of the list when Colorado ranked its high schools by test scores for the first time last year, Manual has been fighting to change its image and its performance level. In the process, it has become a crucible for nearly every major education reform in the country, including block scheduling, school-wide advisory groups, and merit pay. Sophomores now complete "rites of passage" public demonstrations of learning to advance, and seniors give similar exhibitions to graduate. Turbulent changes for a school, all at the same time that Colorado is implementing its own high-stakes testing and standards-based reforms.
Despite support from an enthusiastic principal and the Gates Foundation, Manual's transition to three schools has been rocky. It will be several years before anyone can truly know if it's been a success. But at a time when the small-schools movement is gaining momentum and the federal government has earmarked $125 million to support "small learning communities," Manual is being closely watched to see if a big urban school especially one with rock-bottom test scores and challenging demographics can successfully transform itself.
"The good news is that the schools weathered the [structural] changes," says Van Schoales, who has served as a consultant for Manual and is executive director of the Colorado Small Schools Initiative. "Now the schools are in a position to do what ultimately is the hardest work rethinking the ways in which staff and students interact."
"Small schools" of the type Mr. Schoales advocates have been linked to significant improvements, including reduced school violence, better grades, and increased graduation and college-attendance rates but they're not just about reducing the number of students. Manual may have taken the biggest leap when it started its separation into three schools last year, but the more substantive changes how teachers teach, how students' needs are met, how curriculums are designed are just beginning.
"It's no longer courses and credit it's the ability to really understand proficiency," explains Nancy Sutton, the principal who ushered Manual through the reforms until she left this year to join the Colorado Small Schools Initiative. "It's a slower environment. It's more deliberate. It's less teacher centered.... That's something that some members of the faculty got immediately but others didn't."
Ms. Sutton came to the school in 1996, a year before Denver's citywide busing program ended.
Back then, Manual was a lauded school, held up as a model of diversity and high achievement. Its graduates went on to the country's top colleges, and its test scores were among the best in Denver. But the only neighborhood students to attend came from a two-block radius around the school, and they were generally neglected: The 1994 graduation included just nine of the nearly 150 African-American boys who had entered as freshmen four years earlier.
When busing ended, Manual went overnight from a diverse, high-achieving school to one where attendance was low and dropout and mobility rates were high. About 95 percent of the students are minorities, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Just before busing ended, Manual's previous principal announced his retirement, and the faculty went on a nationwide search for a new one.
Enter Sutton, who didn't want just superficial change. She was an adherent of the Coalition of Essential Schools philosophy of personalization, depth over breadth, and small learning communities. She'd turned around a high school in Indianapolis, and she believed that as an essential school, Manual had a chance.