Education Funding

Failed Breakup of H.S. in Denver Offering Lessons

By Catherine Gewertz — March 10, 2006 7 min read
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The impending closure of the Manual Education Complex in Denver is sparking a conversation about what can be learned from the experience at a time when the nation has pinned high hopes on improving secondary schools by turning them into smaller, more personalized environments.

The Denver high school, which subdivided into three schools in 2001, will shut its doors in June after persistent, poor academic performance. The conversion of the comprehensive high school was among the first financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As such, Manual has been in a fishbowl since its reorganization into small schools. Policymakers, scholars, and activists have been watching and evaluating the effort.

Further information on the Manual Education Complex is available in the April 2005 report, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Lessons Learned From the Experiences of Manual High School,” which is posted by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The Denver school board’s decision last month to close the three schools has prompted a renewed outpouring of discussion among educators—on computer listservs, by phone, and in visits to Denver—about what went wrong.

“We’ve been on the bleeding edge of reform,” said Van Schoales, the interim president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which managed the Gates grant for the Manual project. “There is a great deal of pressure and stress, and there have been mistakes made, but also lessons learned.

“It’s critical to have this national dialogue now,” he said, “because hundreds of other schools are moving through this process.”

Problem’s Roots

Many people associated with Manual date the school’s struggles to 1996, when the city was allowed to stop court-ordered busing for desegregation. New attendance boundaries concentrated high-poverty students, who were in need of greater academic help, at what was then Manual High School. The school tried various strategies, but achievement lagged.

In early 2001, then-Principal Nancy Sutton led the planning for a conversion to small schools. By August of that year, Manual High had reopened as three new schools. But after four years and an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million in investments by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, the state, the school district, and a local foundation, the Colorado Trust, the school wasn’t doing significantly better.

Evaluators found improved relationships between students and teachers, and better attendance. But enrollment had plummeted. More than half the students in the attendance area chose other schools. Only 20 percent of the 9th graders at Manual in the fall of 2001 graduated four years later. Not one student scored at the advanced level on state mathematics and language arts tests in 2003, 2004, or 2005.

Brad Jupp, the senior academic-policy adviser to Michael Bennet, who became the superintendent in the 73,000-student Denver district last June, said the school had to be closed because the students deserved better. Declining attendance drew away enrollment-based state funding, forcing cutbacks in programs and staff that made full implementation of the small-schools approach impossible, he said.

Mr. Jupp thinks the plan also was hobbled by “too little community buy-in” to the idea, and too much focus on governance and structural challenges at the expense of teaching and learning.

Still, in deciding to re-create Manual yet again—it will reopen in 2007 with 9th graders and phase in the other grades—the district has not ruled out using a small-schools approach, Mr. Jupp said. Manual’s design will be “just one piece” of a districtwide reconception of education, he said.

“The most important thing we’ve learned from Manual is not to approach secondary school reform one school at a time,” he said. “We have to create a coherent body of schools and create choices of school design and program inside that coherent body.”

Role for District

Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education initiatives for the Gates Foundation, said the experience with Manual confirms the foundation’s growing belief in the key ingredients needed for successful small schools.

Strategies for Success

The Colorado Children’s Campaign received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to convert Manual High School in Denver into three small schools in 2001. The group has used that experience to recommend 10 things it views as essential in converting large high schools into small ones.


■ Strong principals who can articulate the vision of the school and be its biggest advocate, while sharing leadership with faculty members and students.
■ The use of established, researchbased school designs that have proved effective. Districts and schools should not attempt to develop their own.
■ At least one year of planning time for principals and teachers before the school opens.
■ High-quality, ongoing professional development to hone skills tied to the new school design and to build a collaborative working environment.


■ High expectations and flexible supports for students, such as tutoring, counseling, and effective diagnostic assessments.
■ Personalized advising for every student. Faculty advisers should be responsible for no more than 20 students each.
■ High-quality data and accountability systems to monitor students’ work, analyze instruction, and track students as they transfer or drop out of school.


■ Sufficient and flexible resources to be used at the school level. Money should be based on the school population’s size and characteristics, such as poverty, special education, and language needs.
■ Time and support for the reform process. Funders, districts, and others providing assistance must commit to at least five years of support.
■ Access to information, community engagement, and varied school choices. The community must act as a partner in the change. Parents and students must be informed of conversion plans, programs, and school improvements over time.

SOURCE: Colorado Children’s Campaign

He illustrated the point by contrasting Manual’s record with three small Gates-funded schools in San Diego. That California district was highly committed to the schools and started them as part of a districtwide focus on curriculum and instruction, chose talented leaders for the schools, and ensured they had strategic outside support, he said.

“Denver, as a less effective example, had none of those things,” Mr. Vander Ark said. And, looking back, he now realizes that “Manual was one of the thousand schools in the country that are just too hard to fix and should be closed and replaced” instead of converted into small schools.

Its plan looked strong in 2001, he said, but with more experience now, he is able to see that it should have included more specifics about how curriculum and teaching would improve under the new arrangement.

An April report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign summarizing several evaluations of Manual concluded that a hurried approach was a critical flaw in the conversion. The schools within Manual never developed a clear vision, set of values, or school design to guide instruction, it said, and teachers were reluctant to change their teaching styles because they were not fully committed to the changes. As a result, the report said, the new schools ended up being smaller replicas of the old Manual.

That approach can’t work, said Patrick J. McQuillan, who wrote one of the evaluations of Manual. Opening the small schools so quickly forced a centralization of power and decisionmaking that left teachers, students, and community members out of the loop, said Mr. McQuillan, an associate professor of education at Boston College.

“People don’t own the reform, they don’t understand it, and then the centralized control becomes a lightning rod for dissent, which is what happened,” he said. “Teachers and students don’t have to drive the reform, but they have to be honored and understand why it’s being done.”

Elaine G. Berman, who supported the Manual division in 2001 when she was the president of the Denver school board, now believes the district erred by letting money drive its timing.

“The grant money was available, and we didn’t want to waste another year planning, so we dove in,” she said in an e-mail. “This approach, in retrospect, was probably a mistake” because it “burned out” teachers by making them teach and plan the new venture simultaneously.

Michael Klonsky, the director of the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop, which has supported the start-up of small schools for 15 years, argued that letting funding drive the Manual project—rather than a careful analysis of the school’s needs and context—proved harmful to the young people it was supposed to help.

“It’s one thing for us to sit around and analyze and see what went wrong,” he said. “But for the kids at Manual, it’s a catastrophe.”

Who Will Be Lost?

Jacqueline Falcón, who teaches English and social studies at Arts and Cultural Studies High School, one of the three school in the Manual complex, worries that many students who enjoyed the closer relationships with teachers that the model offered will drop out once the school closes, rather than transfer.

Stacey May, a teacher at Leadership High School, another of Manual’s schools, said forcing each school to be autonomous prevented sharing electives, which narrowed the curriculum and drove students away. She also contended that the problems at Manual could have been prevented if the district had better managed the concentrations of poverty that resulted once busing was discontinued.

Too few of the people involved with Manual understood the complicated issues involved in curriculum and instruction at a small school, Mr. Schoales added. Key to the concept, he said, is surrendering the equation of high school with a huge array of course offerings, and thinking instead of a scaled-down, yet highly effective, core curriculum. Also crucial, he said, is learning how to provide the right supports for students. Both proved difficult at Manual, he said.

He and others involved with Manual were naive about how hard it is to overcome the existing culture of a troubled school, Mr. Schoales said. The experience has made him wonder whether starting small schools from scratch is preferable to breaking up schools.

Harold Brown, the vice president of school improvement for the Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation, which is overseeing a small-schools initiative at 15 campuses in Ohio, agreed that the Manual experience offers a cautionary tale about conversion as a strategy. But he said the approach must be refined and pursued, because it’s not possible to create enough start-ups to reach millions of students.

Mr. Brown, who met last week with leaders of the Manual project, said the lessons learned there improve the odds for small schools in the future. “In the world of school reform, you have to look at the long term, at the big picture,” he said. “There will be isolated cases of failed effort. But it would be wrong to wring our hands and say it can’t be done.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Failed Breakup Of H.S. in Denver Offering Lessons


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