The Next Test

Monday: Samierah Moran, vice president of her junior class at Manual High School, is smart, talented -- and bored. She gets good grades, but she doesn't care much for her classes. She often goes in to see principal Nancy Sutton to complain about the fact that the school is a closed campus during lunch, when menu options are lacking. Sutton diplomatically describes her as bright but angry.

At 7:30 this morning, red pager clipped to her hip, Samierah's sitting with thirteen other students -- most Latino, some black -- in Interactive Mathematics Program 4, working through a challenging trigonometry problem. IMP classes, offered as electives at a few other Denver public high schools but required at Manual, eschew traditional rote memorization in favor of combining algebra, geometry, trigonometry and pre-calculus work into conceptual problem-solving. The theory is that math is more fun when kids think for themselves. Valerie Friedly, with the help of a student teacher, presides over the class, which runs almost ninety minutes. That's plenty of time for the kids to think for themselves, with one-on-one assistance from the teachers.

Samierah splits her time between the IMP problems and her good friend, Margaret Horton. They chat about the fight that broke out at an East High School stepping show over the weekend. It ended with a police crackdown, which sounds reminiscent of the 1996 melee between black kids and local cops at Thomas Jefferson High School. Now they're worried that it could lead to the cancellation of a talent show they're helping to organize that's scheduled for March 15.

"She don't let us do things," Samierah complains of Sutton.

"She's so afraid we're going to get shot up or killed," Margaret adds.

It's true that Sutton cancelled the last talent show after learning that students from other high schools had been invited -- which could have meant too many unfamiliar faces roaming the halls. And the friends agree that they're ready to start a petition drive in case Sutton cancels the March show, too. But in the meantime, they have more immediate concerns -- like finding talent.

While they're discussing this, Mrs. Friedly comes by and asks the girls to explain a math problem. Samierah shows her their work. "Then we stopped right here," she says, "'cause we're thinking."

The teacher notices Samierah's calculator. "Did you just get this?"

"No. I had it last semester.

"That's a cool calculator."

In IMP 4, sophisticated graphing calculators are a fact of life. The students must buy their own, and many cannot afford them. Friedly, one of Manual's veteran teachers, tells her students that Wal-Mart sells graphing calculators for as little as $35. Samierah's cost $100; her mom got it for her. "That's why I ain't got one," says Margaret, who frequently looks at her friend's calculator-generated work.

What Margaret really wants is a pager like Samierah's. It's not easy to pass notes in class: "Having this, we can be talking without anyone being in our business," she explains. Margaret's mother told her that for her birthday this month, she could chose either a pager or a graphing calculator. No sensible student would choose the calculator.

A few hours later, Samierah and Margaret cut their lunch short in order to visit the counseling office, where they try to drop IMP 4. Although Samierah has a letter from her mother giving her permission to drop the course, the counselor, James Durgin, is not impressed. "Seriously, why is this an issue?" he asks.

"It's been an issue since freshman year," Samierah responds. The whole IMP curriculum is an issue, she's saying.

"Besides this very nicely presented letter, what's the reason?"

Samierah explains that she wants to take business math, but the school won't let her -- after IMP 4, she will have to take calculus. But really, it sounds like she just doesn't want to be there. Durgin says he'll call Samierah's mom and encourage her to make her daughter stick it out. Margaret's efforts to get out of the class are also unsuccessful.

"I'm disappointed," says Samierah. "I'm stuck in there again."

So is Margaret. She'll have to settle for the calculator.

Manual Training School opened at East 27th Avenue and Franklin Street on April 3, 1894, as a vocational high school, a concept then in vogue around the country. The new school had 97 pupils, fourteen teachers, no gym, no auditorium and days with six periods -- two of which were devoted to manual training classes such as woodworking or mechanics. An auditorium was added in 1899, a gym in 1924. At first largely white, Manual's student population became more integrated in the 1920s and '30s, when black families began moving from Five Points into the adjoining Cole neighborhood.