Three schools, one building, many reforms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"She wanted to destabilize everybody," remembers Santo Nicotera, Manual's director of reform until he left in June to consult on other small-schools efforts. "And that's what she did."

Mr. Nicotera, for one, believes that such "destabilization" – starting fresh – was necessary. He remembers in particular Sutton's first meeting with the faculty, when she announced that Manual would indeed become a neighborhood school, not a magnet school as many teachers were hoping. "She said, 'If you can't see yourself teaching Latino and black kids from this neighborhood, there's the door.' And then she walked out." Twenty-five of the school's 70 teachers left that summer.

Those who stayed had to adjust to a new four-period day, wholesale curriculum change, more communal planning and critiques of teachers, and a restructured ninth grade that was divided into four teams. And that was just the first year.

Teachers, used to reigning supreme in their classrooms, were often resistant. Students wondered what was happening. Some reforms, such as block scheduling and a peer-critique system, were tried and abandoned. The decision to make the big split happened with little warning, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to help fund the process with a $500,000, five-year grant.

As students file out of his physical-science class, teacher Paul Oser says that some of the reforms have improved his teaching. Still, he misses the camaraderie among the different faculties. In small schools, he notes, teachers feel more empowered – but that can be a double-edged sword. "We're offered more decisionmaking capability, but we're not always listened to. We're offered more hats, but they don't always fit."

Indeed, in retrospect, the biggest failure in Manual's reforms may simply be a lack of communication. "[The reforms] all make sense to me," says Patrick McQuillan, an associate professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education who has been studying the school. "But communicating it to 70-plus faculty members, 1,000-plus students, and parents and community members is difficult.... It's hard to get the big picture."

Students have been the most critical of the changes. "It's like going into a kid's bedroom and rearranging it," explains Nicotera.

Manual had a big presence in this community, and some students don't see why it had to go. Others criticize the segregation they see between the schools – the high concentration of teachers certified in English Language Acquisition means Arts and Cultural Studies is disproportionately Hispanic. In the turmoil of transition, juniors and seniors, particularly, felt neglected.

"The upperclassmen are really dissatisfied," says Mark Stuart, a Leadership student who graduated last year. "We had to patch the holes they left.... It'll become a good working system once time goes by, but it hurt our senior year."

Gerardo Reyes, a shy junior at Arts and Cultural Studies, says he chose Manual even though district lines put him in the neighborhood for North High School. He joined the student council last year, and says he learned a lot preparing for his first rite of passage. But he's also frustrated. He speaks good English, but was still placed in an English-acquisition course. He'd prefer to be at Leadership. "I want to have a voice in my school," he says. Gerardo is one of several students in Students 4 Justice, which got local media attention when they issued a report criticizing the reforms this summer.

Advocates of small schools say such resistance isn't unusual. "When you're starting from scratch, there's no institutional history to undo," says Rick Lear, director of the Small Schools Project in Seattle. "In a conversion school [like Manual], there is that institutional history." It's hard for some families to see the curriculum change – the loss of specialized courses such as German or ceramics.

In the next 15 months, Mr. Lear estimates, 200 to 300 schools in the US will be taking the first steps toward breaking up. Most will probably phase in change slower than Manual did. Still, Lear says, "most of the schools doing this, by their own definition, won't be as desperate as Manual was. Everyone looked at Manual as a throwaway school with throwaway kids. It's reasonable to think a dramatic change might make a difference."

The next three years are crucial for Manual. If test scores don't rise – and they're often the last indicator to move, after things such as attendance and parent involvement – the state could take over Manual and reconstitute it as a charter school.

Ms. Sutton, for one, hopes the hardest part is over. "You think once you go through the pain of breaking up, you've rounded the corner, but ... you've really only begun again. Teaching took a step backwards. Personalization took a step backwards. Everything had to start all over again – they were new schools."

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