Forward to the Past
Manual High School students talk about commitment to their school with a religious fervor. Many of them paint a rosy picture. Everyone gets along. Race has been overcome. The basketball team's integrated. Some teachers can't even remember the last fight they saw, much less broke up. And the school performs well academically, often above the national average.
But underneath the sunny talk, there are problems. Serious ones. As these same people start to talk in detail about their school, a different picture of Manual emerges: two schools, separate and unequal, a family that next year may unravel at the seams when court-ordered busing comes to a close.
In 1994 a graduating senior took the microphone at commencement and complained that the school was not graduating enough of its young black men. Despite its reputation as the most integrated school in Denver--a reputation that will change in the fall--the school, located just east of Five Points, is academically segregated. White kids, bused in from well-to-do neighborhoods like Hilltop and Crestmoor, make up 44 percent of the school's population, yet they are the overwhelming majority in Manual's accelerated, college-prep courses. And the majority of students in remedial classes are minorities.
"No one is intentionally drawing lines," social studies chairman Santo Nicotera says of the school's de facto segregation. "But in any given classroom, it is segregated."
The Reverend Gill Ford of Salem Baptist Church, a community activist in the neighborhood around Manual, says many of the problems come from faculty and administrators. "Parents call me up and tell me that counselors are guiding them into lesser areas," says Ford, who is black. He contends that the end of busing will "revert Manual back to what it was designed for--to teach kids from lower incomes how to go out and do menial jobs."
Whoever is responsible, the school cannot hide the disparity in achievement among the races. Last year its eleventh-graders scored in the 53rd percentile on the Iowa Basics tests, three points above the national average. (The Denver Public Schools average was four points lower, in the 49th percentile.) However, white students scored in the 65th percentile, while Hispanic students scored in the 35th percentile, and black students did even worse, scoring in the 30th percentile.
Next year, the 102-year-old school will be plunged into real segregation for the first time since the early 1970s. Denver's ten public high schools will no longer bus students to achieve integration. Boundaries that once took kids in southeast Denver across town to Manual and took kids in the northeast across town to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, will be redrawn. Manual will pull almost all of its students from the poor neighborhoods immediately surrounding it.
Because the changes in racial makeup at Manual will be more severe than at any other high school, it is becoming ground zero in Denver's post-busing landscape. Currently the school, with about 1,000 students, is well-integrated: 44 percent white, 41 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic. Within the next few years, school officials predict a radical change: 52 percent Hispanic, 44 percent black and only 4 percent white. Whereas this year 45 percent of the students are from middle-income families, next year the figure will drop to 8 percent, with an estimated 92 percent of students living at or below the poverty line, according to DPS statistics.
Boosters call the new Manual a "neighborhood school," but many simply regard the plan for next year's school as segregation--with its implicit meaning of separate and unequal--all over again. "It will clearly become a segregated school, with all the trappings that seems to bring," says Gordon Greiner, the attorney who represented black families in the 1969 court case--Keyes v. Denver School District 1--that led to busing. "The political tenor of integration changed. Neighborhood schools are what are politically popular."
As far as Greiner is concerned, the end of busing is strictly a matter of politics, not education. "Why throw away something that works in part," he asks, "until you have something better?"
And despite stubborn optimism by Manual's administration, "something better" is not immediately forthcoming.
Of course, busing was no cure-all. At the current Manual, "integration" is not a guaranteed thing, even if black and white kids are roaming the same hallways. Furthermore, many believe that forced busing contributed to the mass exodus of middle-class Denverites to the suburbs--white flight and black flight. Busing not only is inconvenient, its opponents argue, it also does little to foster community unity, and it forces groups together that might prefer to stay apart.
Nicotera, a teacher at Manual since 1991, says the promise of desegregation has never been fully realized at Manual. "White kids coming to Manual go on to a top-flight school," he says. "Unfortunately, you don't see a lot of minorities going to the top schools. When you walk through the school, Manual didn't do such a good job. [Busing] was not the panacea people thought."
And the proponents of neighborhood schools admit that next year's changes won't be a panacea, either. "I don't think redrawing the boundaries [after the end of busing] had anything to do with closing the gap," says Bernadette Sieck, DPS's assistant superintendent for secondary education. Instead it had to do with luring people back to Denver. "We did see an increase in money coming in from the state because of the increased enrollment," Sieck says.
What befuddles many, and what causes both sides some hesitation in answering, is why students at Manual--despite its reputation as a model of integration--still perform differently depending on whether they're white or minority.
Most point to poverty--that kids from low-income backgrounds fall off the apple cart long before they get to Manual High School. "Sometimes students don't come from backgrounds that give them as much of a head start, and that naturally puts them at a disadvantage," says Sieck.
"The problem is outside the school," Nicotera adds. "In low-income families, there are not the kind of resources for kids before they ever get into schools. There are never books around them."
But others point to the fact that poor kids often perform well. "The other explanation is kids are not being taught, they're not being communicated to," says Sharon Bailey, a member of the school board from 1989 to 1995. "They're not being given the kind of attention they need early on. If they have not gotten all the basic skills, by the time they get to high school they are frustrated, bored, kicked out and dropped out. Something has happened where family and school system have not performed. No one is held accountable."
Manual's new principal, Nancy Sutton, who is white, says that her school "has not kept up with the other schools [in resources such as computers], even though kids did well here. The attitude was, 'We'll wait until the next crisis.'" To make matters tougher, Manual officials are asking the school board for a 10 percent increase in their budget for next year--a $500,000 hike that has other schools in poor neighborhoods crying foul. Much of the hoped-for money would implement a new curriculum at Manual; create a cadre of student leaders to fan out to the middle schools and help those kids make the transition to high school; and deal with the expected increase in security problems when kids from more than a half dozen gangs find themselves inhabiting the school for the first time.
And that's not all. The end of busing also coincides with the end of north Denver's most prestigious educational magnets: the Montessori program at Mitchell Elementary School and the Cole School of the Arts, shared jointly between Cole Middle School and Manual. Critics say the departure of these programs, which have been relocated to predominantly white parts of Denver, is no coincidence.
The community wanted them to stay," says Bailey, who is black. "But rather than duplicating the programs, [DPS] moved them to a place where they feel they can attract more Anglos to the district."
Not that the neighborhood was benefiting a great deal from the programs, anyway. According to DPS, only 80 of the 550 kids in the Montessori school were from northeast Denver; and only about a sixth of Cole School of the Arts' enrollment was made up of students living nearby.
"That's the problem with magnet schools," Bailey adds. "If you have to put a cap on enrollment so you have space to bus to integrate, you're gonna exclude some kids from the vicinity."
Bailey and others believe that DPS was unprepared to address these issues now staring Manual in the face. "The board had no plan what they would do after busing," says Bailey. Busing, she says, is a "scapegoat. People believe that if we stop it, middle-class whites will return to Denver. So will middle-class blacks."
In his 1994 ruling to end busing in Denver, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch concluded that Denver had come a long way since 1974 toward including minorities in the mainstream: "Their voices will be heard in the Denver school system. There is little danger that they will permit the public schools to deny them full participation."
The evidence doesn't back up Matsch's reasoning. It is assumed by many of busing's opponents that kids who go to school across the street from home do better than those who ride across town, but research doesn't support that view. One of the first cities to end mandatory busing was Norfolk, Virginia, in 1986, and since then, the gap in educational results between ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups has grown worse in that city.
Susan Eaton, assistant director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and co-author of the book Dismantling Desegregation, says her research on other cities has yielded equally grim results.
"When school districts want to go back to segregated schools, they attach a series of promises or hopes," says Eaton, whose research has taken her to Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Austin, Texas, among other cities. "They say it's going to be better for three reasons: First, achievement scores are going to go up because we can focus our attention on these little black and little Latino kids, because we won't have to spend any more time on busing. Then they say parental involvement is going to improve because kids are going to schools closer to home--and three, that white flight will end and the white middle class will return to the city."
But Eaton says that in the cities she has researched, none of these things are happening. "The achievement stays the same and gets worse," she says. "Parental involvement declines--spirals right down--once you take the middle-class parents out of the school. White flight stays the same. People have been leaving cities since after World War II, long before busing. So you can't blame the exodus on desegregation or expect getting rid of it to bring everyone back in."
Research by Eaton and her colleagues has revealed that in school district after school district that has ended busing, the gap between low-income, inner-city, mostly minority schools and affluent, mostly white schools has widened. Manual officials have estimated that only 12 out of 344 assigned incoming freshmen for next fall scored above the 75th percentile on the Iowa Basics test.
The end of busing at Manual puts the school's fate in the hands of Sutton, the school board and communities like Cole and Whittier, poor neighborhoods that heretofore have had little involvement with their schools. Supporters of neighborhood schools see greater community involvement as an opportunity and argue that busing outlived its purpose. "I'm glad busing no longer exists," says Andre Shaw, a black teacher at Manual. "It's harmful when you take someone out of their own environment and say you can't learn in your own place--something is wrong with that. It sends a message that my neighborhood is not good enough to learn in."
"Busing was an experiment that was a necessary reaction to what was happening at that time," adds Bennie Milliner, who was appointed to the school board last month, filling the seat of the Reverend Aaron Gray. Milliner, the only African-American on the seven-person board, thinks the end of busing will allow people to "peel back the pretense and see where we really are. We're not afraid of negative numbers. They tell us where we are and where we need to go.
"In my own community, it causes a certain amount of anxiety. If we have neighborhood schools, then the ball falls squarely in our court."
But where some see opportunity, others see huge question marks.
"How active were parents beforehand?" asks the Reverend Gill Ford. "They already feel powerless to change things, so why should people change? You have to feel somewhat empowered to get involved."
So far, the community around Manual doesn't seem to be very involved. At a September "town hall" meeting sponsored by Manual for parents, students and community residents, 200 people showed up, but only 20 were black. Patricio Cordova, manager of the Hispanic Education Advisory Council, attended a Manual "retreat" a month later at which he says there were few Hispanics. Cordova says many Hispanic leaders are concerned about their own lack of involvement in planning the new Manual. "People are concerned about the lack of representation in the planning meetings," says Cordova. "The curriculum needs to be looked at to make sure it's reflective of various Latino cultures."
Observers say many participants at these functions were white parents of students who live on the other side of town. "The very people they're trying to reach had very little input in what's going on," says Bill Brown, a member of the district's Black Education Advisory Council. He feels the school's Collaborative Decision Making committee--a collective of school and community leaders that formulates policies at Manual and all other DPS schools--has left the community in the dust. Next year's revamped curriculum, he says, shows "the typical plantation attitude. Nancy Sutton is gonna design what's good for us, and not ask us."
Sutton, though, says the school has tried to reach out to the neighborhood with numerous town meetings and presentations at neighborhood association meetings. The end of busing, in her view, gives people a new incentive to participate. "Now the school is only relevant to people who go here," she says. "To people who live around here it was irrelevant--Manual was like the enemy."
Bailey and others still see an adversarial relationship. "I didn't see anything in that plan that spoke to a parent contract," Bailey says. "If that school climate is not one in which parents feel comfortable coming in, there won't be much difference in parent involvement."
In the final year of busing at Manual, the school's climate is already changing. Disgruntled faculty have left, and so have many younger students, some of them to nearby East High School. Those who remain worry that the thing they value most about their school will be gone next year. "If you take away the diversity, you take away most of Manual," says Courtney Snyder, a white junior who lives in Park Hill. Senior Tanya Smith, who is black and has a younger brother at Manual, already sees blacks and Hispanics gearing up now for the conflict over who will run the school next year. "If you take away diversity, you definitely cause a lot of problems," she says. Adds Snyder, "It's not just because you're taking away white people. We just get along so well, and that's what brings the pride to Manual. I really like how it is now; it's people from every neighborhood."
The only group likely to become more diverse at Manual next year are the gangs. Practically everyone says there's no gang problem at the current Manual. But Dean Askew, director of a nonprofit organization that works on gang problems in north Denver, says that as many as seven gangs might find themselves on Manual turf next fall. "It's possible some of the 'bangers won't be in school, but what about the ones that want to be?" he says. "This is not a very well-thought-out issue. My biggest fear is to have a kid walk into school with a machine gun or automatic weapon and just spray, and a lot of innocent kids get hit."
Another source of conflict may be the proposed 1,000-student cap on enrollment in a neighborhood that is estimated to have 1,500 high-school-eligible kids next fall. When you add in the current students who are being grandfathered in and will continue at the school, it's very likely that more than 1,000 kids will want to go to Manual next fall. While Sutton says that she'll go over 1,000 if the students are "committed," the current students make it clear that Manual is still their school, regardless of the boundaries, and that neighborhood kids need to take a number.
"It won't be the same," says Mike Kitch, a white junior. "Ending busing is really risky. You have to go through restructuring, you have to make changes."
Tanya Smith says many students think the school's faculty is dragging its heels in letting everyone know what changes are in store at Manual. And that has caused a rift between teachers and students. "The hostility level is amazing," she says. "Students don't know what's going on. There's no communication. They feel like the faculty is trying to pull a fast one."
Ironically, many faculty feel the same way about the administration. Nicotera conducted a survey of faculty last spring in which one third thought the move was a bad idea and another third was undecided. Nicotera admits there have been more demands placed on the faculty since Sutton's arrival, and others report that she is particularly confrontational with the handful of minority faculty.
The former Indianapolis school official admits that all has not been smooth as she tries to change the way things have been done at Manual. "A teacher in a lecture with kids trying to catch pearls of wisdom doesn't work very well," says Sutton. "Teachers are having to learn and use new stuff, and that requires a lot of energy and mental focus. You just can't rely on what you've done."
Manual High School, the alma mater of Mayor Wellington Webb, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1994, a year that saw both the completion of $15 million in renovations and the angry speech by senior Kinshasa Sayers at graduation decrying the fact that hardly any black males who had begun school as freshmen in 1990 had graduated that year.
Plans for the school were first put in motion in 1891, when Chester S. Morey, newly elected to the Board of Education, suggested an idea gaining popularity elsewhere in the nation: a manual-training department for the Denver Public Schools. The following year a committee was appointed to look into the idea, and on May 27, 1892, the board of education unanimously agreed to create a vocational high school.
The original Manual was located at East 27th Avenue and Franklin Street. It opened April 3, 1894, and it cost $140,000 to build. There were 97 pupils and 14 teachers, no gym, no auditorium, and six-period days, two of which were devoted to manual training, such as woodworking or mechanics. An auditorium was added in 1899, and as improvements and additions were completed, the school's capacity rose from 250 to 650. A gym was built in 1924.
Manual was largely white in its early days (though there are pictures of one black student athlete as far back as 1900), but the school began to integrate in the 1920s and 1930s, as blacks began to migrate from Five Points. Even then, there was unequal education between whites and kids of color. As early as 1927, the Colorado Supreme Court found that a Denver practice of excluding black students from school programs such as swim classes and dances at Manual and Morey Middle School violated state law.
By the end of the 1940s, the school reached its peak enrollment of around 1,500 students, and in the early 1950s, a new Manual was built across the street, on 28th Avenue. "Training" was dropped from the name in 1952, and the school's nickname was changed from the Bricklayers to the Thunderbolts. Criticized in a 1954 Collier's article for such things as emphasizing classes on stagecraft at the expense of more substantive courses, the school fought back, according to Carrie Orton, its local historian, by vowing to stress academics, and it started the district's first special-ed classes.
Then--as now--boosters trumpeted community participation and diversity. Former librarian Marguerite Rishel went so far as to write in a newsletter that Manual was the only school in America in which "faculty committees surveyed the needs of the community in detail." And English teacher Orton, who had written a history of the school in the 1940s, proclaimed, "I think the students of Manual have something wonderful. People work on the questions of harmony among races...Here at Manual we have the secret."
That was in 1953, when the school was 50 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white and 10 percent Asian. As the number of whites shrank in the '50s, '60s and '70s, Orton evidently reconsidered her observation and later wrote, "The sense of brotherhood was somewhat curtailed."
While Manual was enjoying its days of harmony, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were "inherently unequal" and had to be done away with, though in a decision one year later, the court failed to set a specific timetable for when this was to happen, allowing school districts to stall for years.
Eight black Park Hill parents, led by Wilfred Keyes, filed suit against DPS in 1969 on behalf of all black children, claiming that the school district was intentionally segregating students by gerrymandering school boundaries and opening new schools in racially segregated neighborhoods. The case, Keyes v. Denver School District 1, was the first ruling on school segregation outside the South and in an area where there were no statutes requiring segregation. The district attempted to confine the scope of the case to Park Hill, arguing that conclusions couldn't be drawn about the equity of the rest of the district. But U.S. District Judge William Doyle made permanent an injunction against the school district in March 1970, writing that "it cannot be argued that within a unified school district...there can exist conscious and knowing segregation in one area and innocent segregation in another." The Supreme Court concurred, and busing began in Denver in 1974.
There have been dissenters as long as there has been busing. Forty-six buses were blown up in a parking lot off Sixth Avenue in February 1970. And a few years later busing opponents tried to overturn the court ruling by adding an amendment to the state constitution that prohibited busing "for the purpose of achieving racial balance." The court order remained--and the case continued on for twenty years and saw eighteen separate court rulings.
The school board filed its first request to rescind the court order in 1984 and, when that was rejected, tried again in 1992. This time, Matsch granted the request. Matsch wrote that the differences in test scores, discipline and program participation--differences that proved that inequality remained and that showed, according to proponents, that busing needed to continue--"are long-standing and intractable. The mere existence of such differences does not identify them as vestiges from the dual system existing 25 years ago. There are too many variables, including societal and socioeconomic factors."
He ruled that the clause in the state constitution that made busing for integration illegal was not incompatible with the district's ability to provide an equitable education for minorities in the future. Attorney Greiner has since filed an appeal; it is still pending.
Many at today's Manual--from students to faculty to administrators--seem less concerned with the motivations behind the end of busing and more concerned with preparing for the inevitable changes. Manual is the only school that is putting together a whole new curriculum for next year--in order to, as Sutton puts it, "handle these cataclysmic changes." The curriculum calls for expanded remedial training for slow learners in the first two years, followed by a two-year "program of excellence"--a concentration of courses in one particular area, such as a cluster of math, science and medicine; "Leadership" studies (like Outward Bound); and American Community and Cultural Studies. The new curriculum emphasizes outreach programs with businesses and institutions in metro Denver such as local governments and hospitals.
Some say the curriculum, however innovative, is just paper if prejudice against minority kids remains. "I'm wondering what kind of magic they're going to work," says Sharon Bailey. "What is going to make much of a difference if the climate remains the same? There's a difference of treatment between Anglos and blacks and Hispanics. That history has not gone away. And I don't see any move to increase the number of minority faculty."
"Damage can be done at this level, but I don't think there are teachers who are this way," says Nicotera. "There's not a group of teachers not doing well or not trying their best."
Sutton says she has hired five new minority teachers since she started in July. Now there are 16 minority teachers out of 51, and Sutton says she is trying to add more bilingual teachers for next fall.
The curriculum was submitted to the board in November, which raised concerns about projected costs. School budgets are put together using various criteria built around how many kids are enrolled. As one of the smallest high schools in the district, Manual is receiving $4.3 million this year. North, with twice as many students, receives more than $6 million, and George Washington, home to expensive magnet programs, receives more than $7 million.
For a district whose total budget is $360 million, Manual's request for an extra $500,000 seems paltry. But the money, says DPS spokesman Mark Stevens, "would have to come from other district-wide programs that would have to be cut to pay for it. [Sutton's] poverty is not a whole lot worse than at North, West or even Lincoln. Then they're down here looking for their half million, and the board is not going to be able to pay them."
The school board is expected to weigh in soon on the new curriculum; Stevens says the board will not give Sutton the extra funds, but Sutton says she is determined to seek out charities and private funding sources. Still, despite all the brave talk, there are some hard facts. Across the country, Milliner says, "schools have tended to slide back to a level of mediocrity that existed prior to busing." While he believes the Collaborative Decision Making committees will prevent that from happening here, he admits that neighborhood schools "won't happen without extraordinary effort from the community."
Most observers agree that even if neighborhood schools prove to be a bust in narrowing the achievement gap between whites and minorities and between affluent and poor kids, it could take years before busing--or something altogether new--is tried. And that day may never come.
"Busing as we've known it, for the explicit purpose of integration, is done," Milliner says. "We need to understand this environment and look toward long-term solutions. This is just bricks and mortar along the way. Can we make it work? Yes. Do we have the political will to make it work? Question mark.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.