Education Letter to the Editor

Manual High Commentary: Two Differing Reactions

June 06, 2006 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Gary Lichtenstein’s Commentary, “What Went Wrong at Manual High?” (May 17, 2006), about Denver’s Manual High School conversion to smaller schools misses the mark on both the facts and analysis.

As Mr. Lichtenstein’s former supervisor and the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s point person for the Manual project from 2001 until now, I agree with him on only a few points.

One is regarding the pressure to move quickly on structural reforms. In hindsight, the rush toward implementation was a big mistake. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and the Denver public school system should have insisted on phasing out the old Manual High School before building three new schools.

But Mr. Lichtenstein’s suggestion that everyone wanted the reform to work is simply not true. Most of the evaluations of the conversion, including his own, reveal that many teachers lacked the commitment to change practice or the tools to do so. Because the new schools’ principals could envision nothing more than better, small versions of the former Manual, none could articulate a coherent set of teaching and learning practices for their teachers. Everyone worked hard, but there was no clear vision for the individual schools they were trying to create.

Moreover, the Denver school system never really committed itself to the effort. The district leadership was focused on a centralized literacy program and had little interest in high school reform. We pushed for changes at Manual long after we should have withdrawn support.

While there is lots of blame to throw around concerning Manual, there is also much to be learned. I hope that those of us committed to high school reform will heed the lessons of Manual and use them to ensure that we work more effectively in the future. As reformers, we must realize that it is time we stop repeating our failed efforts at these kinds of conversions and do more to replicate schools that work for at-risk kids.

Van Schoales

Interim President

Colorado Children’s Campaign

Denver, Colo.

To the Editor:

We commend Education Week for publishing Gary Lichtenstein’s evenhanded account of the Denver public school system’s decision to close the small schools at the Manual Education Complex.

After visiting Denver last March as part of a KnowledgeWorks Foundation delegation to investigate this closing, we can appreciate Mr. Lichtenstein’s call to reformers that they “demonstrate a genuine and lasting commitment not merely to the reform, but also to the schools, districts, and communities in which they are involved.” We also welcome Mr. Lichtenstein’s call for those involved in small-school reform to examine how external agencies—including ours—collaborate with school districts.

As part of its Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, KnowledgeWorks Foundation has experienced success with a model for community engagement that may well prevent unfortunate collisions of agendas like those that helped doom Manual. Our “Centers of Strength” approach, developed with the assistance of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, provides for each school district to select a community-based organization that serves as the primary group to assist in the connection and communication between the school and the larger community.

Authentic public engagement like that generated by a “center of strength” is succeeding at getting differing groups to talk to each other and on the same page about their children’s education, as well as creating ownership. The lessons we’ve learned from our experiences with centers of strength are available in “Stories of Change,” a publication that can be downloaded from our Web site, www.kwfdn.org.

Manual’s example serves as part of a growing knowledge base in high school conversions and reform in general that did not exist before. We must remain committed to publicly sharing and enacting upon one another’s collective learnings so that students do not suffer the unintended consequences of change. There is not a lot of room for risk and failure in education.

Chad P. Wick

President and CEO

KnowledgeWorks Foundation

Monica Martinez

Senior Fellow

KnowledgeWorks Foundation

Cincinnati, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Manual High Commentary: Two Differing Reactions


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