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The Next Test

Manual High School earned extra credit for surviving the end of busing. But can it survive the CSAP?

Overnight, Manual's demographics underwent a dramatic change. What had been a largely white-and-black school, split between the poor and middle classes, suddenly became a mostly brown-and-black, and almost entirely poor, school; the affluent white kids went off to George Washington or East high schools. And that wasn't the only change at Manual.

Between 1997 and 2000, for instance, reading scores declined for freshmen, sophomores and, most notably, juniors -- who fell from the 67th percentile to the 38th percentile. While other district high schools have witnessed falling dropout rates over the years, Manual's rate has risen, from 76 kids (4.4 percent of the student population) in the 1995-96 school year to 106 kids (or 7.1 percent) in 1999-00. During the 1998-99 school year, 75 percent of Manual's students were on a free- or reduced-lunch program; just 27 percent participated in 1992-93.

The concern over such disparities increased in 1997, when Governor Bill Owens announced the introduction of the Colorado Student Assessment Program, a "high-stakes" test that will be used to grade the performance of schools statewide.

The CSAP test has people at Manual really anxious. Students feel pressured not to let their school down on what they've been told is a hard exam (last spring, two-thirds of the state's eighth-graders failed the CSAP's math portion, and half failed the science portion). Teachers and administrators are concerned because after the end of this academic year, schools will be graded based on their students' scores -- and schools will be forced to improve those scores in following years or risk being converted into charter schools, or closed down altogether. Because the schools will be graded on a bell curve, a small percentage are certain to receive failing grades. (Originally a failing grade would have been an F; responding to criticism, Owens changed it to the slightly more tactful "unsatisfactory.") Principal Sutton expects her school to be one of those at the bottom. So does everyone else.

Sutton has had her hands full lately. A piece published in the Denver Post in early February claimed that Sutton was considering converting Manual into a charter -- before it had the chance to get a failing grade. Sutton was furious over the story, and DPS quickly issued a statement claiming her comments were made last October, "when the school staff and community were studying 'any and all' options to improve...The school was not seeking charter-school status."

"That is so wrong," Sutton says of the Post story. "It's always the disenfranchised who get the brunt of things."

In fact, last fall the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity asked the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to investigate why black students at DPS high schools don't perform as well as their white counterparts. The commission is forming a task force to assess four Denver high schools: East, Montbello, George Washington and Manual. The task-force members will include parents and students, representatives from prominent black organizations, and officials with state and local educational groups and agencies. From their work, the commission hopes to find solutions for the achievement gap.

Manual administrators and students alike resent being portrayed as members of Denver's poor school, or ghetto school, or the school most likely to fail. They have an infectious, chip-on-their-shoulder pride that's reflected in their very vital school. Manual's classes are challenging, and the school has created its own college-prep curriculum, known as AVID, that helps college-bound students form study groups, learn to ask the right questions in lectures and take better notes. What's more, sophomores and seniors are required to submit portfolios of extracurricular work before they can move on to the next grade or graduate. The portfolios are designed to make students respect learning and see it as part of the culture of the school -- a mindset often lost during middle school.

On average, kids arrive at Manual lagging in reading, but they make up a grade and a half every year they're at the school. (Social studies teacher Santo Nicotera, a fixture at the school, believes teachers could get students reading at the right level if they just had one more year.) According to Pat McQuillan, a University of Colorado professor who's researched the post-busing landscape, the performance of Manual's black and Latino kids has improved relative to the performance of those same groups throughout DPS. And any concerns about rival gangs duking it out in a shared school have not come to pass. The kids who are regularly in class look, well, regular. They're shy about raising their hands to answer questions, they complain about boring classes, they chat whenever they think they can get away with it, they socialize and flirt in the halls, they study -- and most do their best.

Still, those negative perceptions filter in. Many students say they don't like curricula that only Manual uses -- such as the IMP courses -- because those classes somehow feel remedial, even though the IMP has been deemed one of the best curricula in the country by math teachers. And, while faculty members say the portfolio program is not only unusual for a school with Manual's demographics, but rigorous, students regard it as busywork. No other DPS students do portfolios, so they're naturally suspicious as to why they're singled out. Some students even talk about ditching the CSAP test, because everyone expects them to do badly, anyway. (As it turns out, attendance on test day is excellent.)

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