RIP Manual High-- even Bill Gates couldn't save you
Manual High School in Denver has occupied its home in east Denver since 1894 and is one of the city's oldest high schools. It's seen its fortunes change over the years, but was apparently hard hit when busing ended in 1997 and the school had to draw from its largely poor, minority neighborhood alone for students. It had over a thousand students, but only about 60% graduated.
The Denver Public Schools turned to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its "small schools" initiative to turn Manual around. In 2001, Manual was divided into three semi-autonomous schools: Arts and Cultural Studies High, Leadership High and Millennium Quest High. The attempted transformation was trumpeted in a 2002 article in the Denver Post:
Colorado's most closely watched school downsizing was last year at east Denver's former Manual High School. Manual Educational Complex now contains three more or less autonomous schools: Arts and Cultural Studies High, Leadership High and Millennium Quest High.
The end of desegregation in 1997 left Manual with big problems to match its hefty enrollment of 1,100. Students, almost all of them minorities, were getting low test scores, and few were graduating.
Former principal Nancy Sutton wanted to help teachers and students work better together.
"We didn't think small schools initially," Sutton said from the University of Indianapolis, where she leads a teacher-quality program. "What we were thinking of was personalization: How would you take students who have multitudes of issues into the teaching environment and address those?
"We went through all kinds of configurations," she said. "Small schools was kind of an 'aha."'
The Manual split is a work in progress. Out-of-town evaluators found school climate last year was generally good, but problems remained, including abysmal grades, surly students and an aborted teacher-training plan.
"To ask everybody to change so much, so quickly, was asking a lot," Schoales said.
Though smaller schools are more expensive, they save money in the long run by better serving students, Schoales said.
The three mini-Manuals spend $104,000 a year more than Manual High School did. But the campus attendance rate is 90 percent - five points better than Denver's high schools, on average - suggesting its below-average 63 percent graduation rate may also rise.
"It may cost a little bit more to have a focused, small school, primarily because of administrative costs," Schoales said. But districts can save money on programs they create to hang on to kids, he said.
High school leaders across the country are coming to the same conclusions as those in Colorado, said Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
In a smaller setting, "kids are not just a number in the school, just some unknown entity, they're someone who is known by faculty and other members of school staff," Carr said. "It's a big deal to us."
Since a wave of small-school construction is unlikely in this sluggish economy, many schools are exploring Manual-style breakups, Carr said.
But trouble continued at Manual, and it lost fifty percent of its enrollment in the last four years. Blogger Mike Klonsky claims that the leadership at DPS never really allowed the small schools model championed by the Gates Foundation to take root.
In February of this year, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet announced that the school would close, possibly to be renovated and reopened in 2007 with a new freshman class. Meanwhile, all of the students have had to apply to transfer to another DPS high school.
So this week Manual High School will close its doors. And according to Klonsky, there are already threats of lawsuits by those who attended a rally to protest the closing of Manual High back in April.
I have heard good things about the "small schools intiative." It is troubling to hear of the failure of a school associated with this idea. However, I certainly don't think a failing school should continue out of some misplaced sense of tradition if every avenue has been exhausted. We'll see if Manual reopens in 2007, and what DPS plans on doing differently if it does.