East High and Manual High: Community questions proposal to combine 9th grades

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A meeting Tuesday night to discuss a potential partnership between high-achieving East High School and struggling Manual High School looked like this: Lines of parents queued up behind two microphones, firing questions at East principal Andy Mendelsberg, who patiently -- if not a bit nervously -- answered them as best he could. The most common question asked, aside from whether the proposal was already a "done deal," was how a ninth-grade academy housed at Manual but run by East would benefit East High freshmen.

Mendelsberg repeatedly said that he sees many benefits in combining the freshmen populations of East and Manual and attempting to separate them from the upperclassmen. For one, he said, it would ease the overcrowding at East, a school that many Denver teens "choice into." There are currently about 2,400 students at East, he said, and he'd like to see that number reduced to 1,900. A ninth-grade academy would also be a gentler transition for students entering high school, Mendelsberg said, and allow East to provide more help to those who are behind academically.

"That can be done better with our ninth-graders off campus with more supports," he said.

The proposal, which was laid out in a letter by Mendelsberg, would have Manual become a "rigorous" tenth- through twelfth-grade Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) high school open to students from both the East and Manual neighborhoods. Interim assistant DPS superintendent Greta Martinez, who also attended the meeting, said there would be two pathways within the Manual STEAM program: one focusing on engineering and another focusing on biomedical science.

Meanwhile, East would remain a comprehensive high school serving tenth- through twelfth-grade students from both communities. Students at both schools would have the opportunity to take classes at either campus, according to Mendelsberg's letter.

Part of the reason for the proposal, according to a separate letter written by DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, is that Manual's enrollment is decreasing; fewer than 75 ninth-grade students are planning to enroll at Manual this coming fall.

"Is this to save Manual?" one parent asked at the meeting, which was held in the East High auditorium, where the seats were more than half full with attendees.

"I don't see it as saving anything," Mendelsberg said, standing at the front of the room with his own microphone. "I see it as giving access and opportunities."

"What problem are you trying to fix here?" another parent asked, as others applauded.

The district isn't trying to fix a problem, Mendelsberg said. He added that he would never support anything that would be detrimental to East, which he said works fine the way it is now. "We're not trying to kill a good thing," he assured the crowd.

But he also emphasized that he'd love for East students to have the chance to attend a STEAM program if they wanted to. He admitted that there are many details to be worked out, including transportation and how exactly the six-hundred to seven-hundred ninth-graders at Manual would be separated from the older STEAM students.

However, Mendelsberg said, there's time to figure them out. "This is not a decision that has been made," he said. "Not even close." In fact, he said, DPS has agreed to postpone doing anything for another year. The proposal is "off the table" for the 2015-2016 school year, Mendelsberg said, and is now being considered for 2016-2017.

Mendelsberg also said the ninth-grade academy plan isn't the only proposal that DPS will consider. Martinez echoed that, explaining that the Manual community is working on a proposal of its own and is scheduled to present it to DPS sometime next month.

By the end of the nearly two-hour meeting, some parents still didn't seem satisfied with the answers they'd received from Mendelsberg and Martinez. The last man to speak said he was still unsure of the benefits of the proposal and added that he hadn't heard anything from DPS officials "other than general platitudes."

Mendelsberg kept his cool. The proposal is still in the beginning stages, he said again. "Does this makes sense to East?" he asked. "Does this make sense to Manual?" Those are the questions that the administration will work with parents to answer, he said.

With this school year coming to an end next week, DPS officials said they plan to invite East parents in the fall to join a Manual community group already underway to add "the East perspective" to the conversation about how to help struggling Manual.

More from our Education archive: "East High and Manual High: Preview proposal to combine schools' 9th grades."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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