On Friday, March 2, news broke that Nick Dawkins had resigned as principal of Manual High School, and the initial letter describing the reasons behind his decision was exceedingly polite, albeit with an edge of sadness. But the following day, in an essay titled "Why I Left Denver Public Schools," Dawkins was much more blunt, revealing that a controversy over reports of a confederate flag at a Manual-Weld Central High School football game last September was among the factors that led to his departure. "For weeks as this situation played out, I was targeted by those that called me a nigger and vowed to bring harm to me," Dawkins wrote.
The Friends of Manual High School Facebook page documents the way the news rolled out. At 4:04 p.m. on Friday, a post appeared revealing that Lainie Hodges had officially resigned as board chair for Friends of Manual. Her brief note states in part, "This role and work has been an honor and a privilege for me and words cannot express how grateful I am to Nick Dawkins for all that he has given. It was a pleasure to work alongside him and I will forever treasure what Manual is and has been to us. More information will be forthcoming and I respectfully ask for some space at the moment to process. I know I need to reach out to our valued community partners and will do so when I am able."
Three minutes later, at 4:07 p.m., another item appeared — this one under the signatures of DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg and deputy superintendent Susana Cordova.
Here's that post:
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Dear Manual High School Community,
We are writing to let you know that Principal Nick Dawkins has decided to resign. We want to share how incredibly grateful we are for Nick’s service.
Nick grew up down the street from our school and has given so much to Manual and our community. In his time as school leader, our students have shown strong progress in performance, jumping two levels on the School Performance Framework in just one year. More than 90% of our students report being satisfied with their experience in school. And the vast majority of our families say they would recommend Manual to other families.
"What I am most proud of in my time leading in DPS is where I chose to lead," Nick wrote in his letter sharing his decision. "DPS giving me the chance to go home and make some things right by the students there is a gift I will always be thankful for."
We will be announcing our interim school leader and sharing details of our principal selection process, including how students, staff and community can participate, early next week.
Thank you for your continued support of our school as we work through this transition period.
The quote from Dawkins is drawn from a letter that begins, "My Dear Camerados;" it appears below in its entirety. The first paragraph is dominated by a list of people to whom Dawkins pays tribute. The second, however, starts with the line, "I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me" and includes this extraordinary passage: "Before I came to Manual I was told by a leader you are going to ruin your career, you are jumping from the frying pan into the fire, the school and kids down there are dying on the vine, there is a reason no one wants to lead there, it is highly likely you will fail. After sleeping on it, I returned the next day with the statement, 'I don’t think going back to my community and telling 300 kids we love them and haven’t forgot about them is a failure. And if that is failure and I ruin my career, I guess I will have to get another career. They deserve it.'"
Even more confessional is "Why I Left Denver Public Schools," which appeared on the Friends of Manual Facebook page on Saturday, March 3. In it, Dawkins alludes to the Confederate-flag controversy, which involved a letter to parents in which he explicitly said the Weld Central squad showed off a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the match-up. He added, "We asked them to remove the flag and they did so. However, the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field. Three of our players were injured during the game, including a student who suffered a concussion and a student who was transported to the hospital for a leg injury. I want to emphasize that the players received treatment and will be fine. In addition, some of our players reported that, when tackled, players from the opposing team taunted them with racial slurs."
Attendees of Weld Central High School are known as the Rebels, and a petition that remains online at this writing calls for the nickname to remain despite assertions that the institution's mascot, which has been twinned with a Confederate flag at times over the years, is racially insensitive. Nonetheless, WCHS quickly denied Dawkins's account. Then, days later, a new letter signed by Dawkins, Weld Central High School principal Dan Kennedy, DPS's Boasberg and Weld County School District Re-3J superintendent Greg Rabenhorst blamed unidentified spectators for trying to bring in a flag, made no mention of the alleged injuries or racial slurs and stressed that "the Confederate flag plays no role in Weld Central, and neither school condones symbols or acts of racism."
This compromise didn't end the matter for Dawkins, as his observation about threats and slurs underscores. Meanwhile, subsequent events at Manual made his job even tougher — including a November triple shooting in the school parking lot allegedly committed by a thirteen-year-old, Javeon Brown.
Then, days before his resignation, Dawkins "learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment. I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students, was questioned. The next day it was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators. I began to draft a resignation letter that was intended only for senior leadership, which was subsequently shared with the public."
Dawkins could have chosen to fight for his job, he acknowledges. But, in his words, "it became clear to me that I would not be able to serve without the support of my leadership team. With an ever-increasing focus on what schools and school leaders are doing wrong through allegations, public attacks and high stakes testing connected to school closure, the priority of the students I so dearly love could be quickly lost. I refuse to let that happen to the students and families of Manual."
Continue to read the first resignation letter and the subsequent essay.
Official Resignation letter:
To My Dear Camerados,
I am writing to inform you of my resignation from Denver Public Schools. My time spent in DPS as a student, paraprofessional, teacher, assistant principal and school leader have been most of my life and some of the best times of my life. You could say I learned how to grow up in DPS. The most amazing leaders I have ever encountered and spoken with have been in this incredible city and school system. I’ve traveled to new heights I never believed I could go to! My life was saved by students that served as DPS pupils and by an Assistant Principal who refused to let me dwindle away after my sweet mother and caring grandparents passed on to another place. Leaders like Allen Smith, Antwan Wilson, Randy Johnson, Tom Boasberg, Greta Martinez, Bill Kohut, Tony Smith, Susana C., Alyssa, and Debbie H., gave me an opportunity and some even showed me what a father could have looked like in my life; or what a mother’s care could still feel like. I have so looked up to our leadership. Working with Yolanda Greer, Barb Nash, Araceli, Prudence, Derek Hawkins, Juli Yacovetta, Chris Deremer, John Goe, Rodney Jackson Jen Jackson, Dave Daves, Legina Layman, Will Anderson, Kendrick Friendly, Tonyetta Fields, Kelli Lesh, Kristen Moreland, Sonja Debose, Sharon Dacotah, Shirene Patterson, Lesley Meyer, Becca Burkhart. The list just goes on. I am so proud and fulfilled by everything we accomplished for kids far and wide. The parents, the community, our beautiful times together are a blinding light of smiles, joy, amazing accomplishments and love. Dancing at DPS Values Day, winning the heart of so many South East parents and students, the student protest during my last day of teaching at South- one kid stood up on a chair and saluted with tears in his eyes, Walt Whitman’s “Oh captain, My captain!” When I walked in my AVID class they were all standing on tables, 50 students saluting, “Oh Captain, My Captain!” I thought I was in a movie! No day has been the same since and many of them have felt like movies. In the far northeast we turned a Red school Green and started a mentoring for the most-at-risk program that is now all over the state of Colorado. There are so many great kids out there and at MLK! I still cheer for the students, teachers and parents at Hamilton Middle School! The kind of Teachers I led there are harder and harder to find these days. One who really didn’t care for me in the beginning actually sent her student with me back home to Manual!
I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me. It broke the heart of so many when I grew up down the street in my childhood. One of my best friends was murdered after I dropped him off right across the street from Manual, as I started my high school career. He had a beautiful smile, Shandell Banks, I met him at Morey Middle School with the golden mustang in the cafeteria. What I am most proud of in my time leading in DPS is where I chose to lead. DPS giving me the chance to go home and make some things right by the students there is a gift I will always be thankful for. The decision to go there represents the kind of man I want to be and the kind of people that we so desperately need to help our common humanity. Manual is where the light is, and that light has been me. It’s the light that I looked for when I was lost, it’s the light that came from reading so many books and learning from so many people and experiences. In many ways, my mother’s early death became the event that brought so much joy, pride, healing and hope to Manual kids and families years later. She is still giving back to our community through me, which has made almost every day for me so special, so healing, so hopeful! Before I came to Manual I was told by a leader you are going to ruin your career, you are jumping from the frying pan into the fire, the school and kids down there are dying on the vine, there is a reason no one wants to lead there, it is highly likely you will fail. After sleeping on it, I returned the next day with the statement, “I don’t think going back to my community and telling 300 kids we love them and haven’t forgot about them is a failure. And if that is failure and I ruin my career, I guess I will have to get another career. They deserve it.”
Thank you, my dear leaders and camerados! I love you all and still believe love conquers! Every child can succeed!
Why I Left Denver Public Schools
By Nick Dawkins
I never thought I would leave Manual High School this school year. I was so looking forward to graduation and graduating next year’s class of seniors who was the first class I came in with. This decision has been incredibly difficult for me and it is important to share why I resigned.
I looked into my wife’s eyes yesterday morning and I could see the toll that my service has had on my family. The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart. When you add turnaround leadership and being a leader of color to that it can really become complex, difficult, and you can often end up feeling like you are in a no-win situation most of the time. The design of our current system makes it extremely difficult to navigate the politics, communications and varying stakeholder desires,especially when you add in the essential elements of equity and culturally responsive school leadership that puts students first. Through my career and at Manual I have stood tall in the face of so many challenges and always stood by my students.
This year’s challenges have proved to be some of the most difficult I have ever encountered. In the first months of the school year, we buried two beloved students and provided crisis teams for our students and community. We, like many other schools, were taken off-guard by the recent DPS SPF ratings as we started the school year. Our school was devastated by the results of the SPF as all the predictors we had up to that point showed us finally taking Manual to Green.
As we processed the fallout from this revelation, we encountered the well documented football game in which our students and community reported being hurt by racial slurs, and images of what they believed was a confederate flag. For weeks as this situation played out I was targeted by those that called me a nigger and vowed to bring harm to me. The repeal of the Dream Act, at play as well, rocked our school as DACA students feared and some students begin to report the deportation of family members. A gun soon found in our school would also heighten the tension and anxiety of our employees, students, parents, faculty and staff. Through all of this, our amazing teachers and staff remained committed to our students through their trauma and insecurities, overcoming the anxieties of day-to-day headlines. That commitment unwavering, Manual had the highest graduation rate in close to a decade.
When we finally had a well-deserved fall break, we learned of a brutal and vicious slaying that took place in our parking lot as we served up Thanksgiving dinner to our families. The tension and anxiety seemed unescapable. As winter break brought rejuvenation, we came back ready for recruiting for School Choice and preparing for our upcoming SAT/PSAT examinations. In our first week back in January, I traveled with a group of teachers to learn advance critical reading strategies to bring back to students in their classrooms. On my first day gone, I learned that members of my leadership team allowed a non-Manual employee and employee new to Manual to light tobacco and bring marijuana inside the school for a science experiment, without parent permission. I was dumbfounded as our school board policy clearly bars drugs on campus. This event was a turning point and I held my team accountable.
I remain disappointed in the action to approve a clear violation of school policy and the message it sent to our kids and community, especially in the light of the rough year we were having. I was emotional, I was sad, I was extremely disappointed, and embarrassed. One student asked me, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while.” I shared her sentiments. I gave my best to move forward although I began to hear and see actions that were clearly contradictory to our values and aimed to hurt me. I understood the trauma from the year was not only informing my decisions, but the decisions and perspectives of those closest to me.
This all came to a head when two days ago, I learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment. I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students, was questioned. The next day it was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators. I began to draft a resignation letter that was intended only for senior leadership, which was subsequently shared with the public.
One may ask, why not stay and fight these allegations? The answer for me again lies in what is best for my family’s health and what is to be gained. With over 90 percent staff and student approval on my recent Manual DPS Collaborate survey and with 16 years of exemplary service with similar or higher percentages of staff and student approval, DPS took action contrary to my record of service. It is with my deep belief in the DPS core values that I chose now to find another way to serve.
I stand now seeking nothing more but to get the time to heal from not only this year, but the past 16 years. Dr. Sharon Bailey’s recent report on the experience of Black educators in DPS captures years of struggle that I shared with many colleagues. I need to tend to my family and to my own health, as my passion for supporting students and families at Manual has now encompassed both my private and professional life. I have never really had the time to take care of my home, in looking after the home for our beautiful students and community at Manual.
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The role of the Principal is currently one mired in concerns of student safety and mental health management, both for the students and the staff that serve them. Everyday fears of gun violence and school shootings are combined with the overall stories of trauma our society is currently involved in. It became clear to me that I would not be able to serve without the support of my leadership team. With an ever-increasing focus on what schools and school leaders are doing wrong through allegations, public attacks and high stakes testing connected to school closure, the priority of the students I so dearly love could be quickly lost. I refuse to let that happen to the students and families of Manual.
The students at Manual should know I will continue to love and support them in my new adventures and that the time we shared was a most profound and powerful experience. I shared my heart and love with you all and it was all genuine. I will still be here foryou. As I cared for you I must care for my family as well. Don’t stop shining. Remember, Manual is where the light is.