Boasberg: Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility

Denver’s superintendent took full responsibility for the lackluster academic performance at a high school the district once promised would be the envy of reform efforts across the nation.

“I own all of it,” Tom Boasberg said in an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “I’m the leader of the school district. And Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility.”

Manual High School, deemed failing in 2006, had a brief academic renaissance after a dramatic re-boot in 2007. But last year, Manual was ranked Denver Public Schools lowest-performing high school after freshmen and sophomores posted historically low results on state standardize tests. By some measures, the school’s academic performance is worse than before the school was shuttered.

Earlier this month, Chalkbeat Colorado published a series of articles about Manual, a school that serves mostly poor and minority students, detailing the well-intentioned reform efforts that often went awry.

Late last week, Manual’s leader Brian Dale, the third since the school re-opened, was fired after he refused to resign his principalship and take another position within the district, said DPS board member Landri Taylor.

Boasberg declined to comment on Dale’s exit, but said, “We were concerned that some of those critical success factors weren’t as strong as they needed to be. And we weren’t seeing fast enough progress toward those success factors.”

Manual, the first school that was re-booted in Denver’s modern reform movement, has been a learning experience for Boasberg.

Without naming Dale or any of the specific circumstances that have lead Manual and the district to this moment, Boasberg addressed some of the lessons he’s learned: “In a turnaround school situation it’s very important to have an experienced — a proven — school leader, that the district needs to be better and more thoughtful about its supports for its schools including providing key flexibilities for our schools. And that, when we are doing a turnaround school, its very important to have more time to plan for the opening of that school to get it right from the beginning.”

Boasberg also declined to compare Dale to his successor, Don Roy, who was most recently principal of Hill Campus of the Arts Middle School.

“I’m not going to get into a comparison about individuals,” Boasberg said. “But, I think it’s fair to say, the key to success for every school leader is really having a strong set of teachers who work very well together as a team, and having clear and high expectations around what’s necessary for kids, making sure kids really understand and appreciate the expectations adults have for them, having a very clear and intentional culture, and making sure teachers are getting the kind of feedback and coaching they need to grow as teachers.”

Members of the Manual community have been skeptical of the transition.

One parent, Nina Adams, said of Dale, “That man had love for this community — this school. It’s like taking away our heart.”

Precise details on Manual’s future are still unknown. However, the school will not be shut down again, and the district is planning a number of meetings between students, parents and community members in the coming weeks, Boasberg said.

“Are there programmatic changes or improvements [that can be made]? Those questions should be on the table,” Boasberg said.

But the level of interaction between the school — which is allowed to make its own budget, hire its own teachers and design its own curriculum because of an “innovation agreement” — and the district is likely to increase.

“It’s extraordinarily important to have very strong support and [collaboration] with school leaders in our schools,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg said the district’s intervention and next steps will be based on “a lot of evidence and a lot of experience on what works best in schools and what doesn’t work in schools.”

CEO of the education advocacy organization A+ Denver Van Schoales said the district was right to take action.

“I wish that they had done this in the fall,” Schoales said. “They had the data they needed. In order to really stop the bleeding, they’re going to need to have amazing instructional coaches. The district needs to provide an extra level of resources above and beyond anything they’ve done in the past.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”