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The Next Test

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Even then, however, 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 such school programs as swimming classes and dances at Manual and Morey Middle School violated state law.

By the end of the 1940s, Manual had reached its peak enrollment of around 1,500 students. In the early '50s, a new Manual was built across the street, on 28th Avenue. "Training" was dropped from the school's name in 1952, and the sports teams were changed from the hardworking Bricklayers to the Thunderbolts. By 1953, the school was 50 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white and 10 percent Asian. In the two decades that followed, the number of white students kept shrinking -- until busing forced them back into the neighborhood.

Through the years, Manual has displayed a gutsy pride, turning challenges into opportunities. It was the first school in Denver to introduce special-education classes. In the '40s, a Manual librarian declared that the school was the only one in the nation that surveyed the needs of the community; another administrator hailed the school for achieving harmony among the races.

Manual's modest size -- now around 1,100 kids -- helps foster the sense that something special is going on here. Over a few days, the school grows even smaller and faces become familiar. Many of Samierah Moran's peers share her schedule; by the time you reach her last class, you've seen at least half of the students.

And although the school may be poor, signs of conspicuous consumption are evident: Kids chat on cell phones, send each other text pages, listen to music on their disc players, wear expensive-looking watches; a few walk the halls with gleaming silver Sony video cameras.

Manual classes are structured into "blocks" that combine two class periods into one. Instead of seven or eight fifty-minute periods, students have four classes that last almost ninety minutes each. Some teachers like the extra instruction time; others find it challenging to keep the kids' attention.

After IMP 4, Samierah and Margaret head to British Literature. The kids are studying Beowulf. ("I'm scared to read that," Samierah says in passing to Margaret the following day.) Today is a day to take notes on paganism and the roots of modern English. In the back of the class, Margaret draws Power Puff girls in her notebook, while Samierah idly sketches a superhero.

"A woman?" Margaret asks.

"Of course. I always make them black. Strong and smart and fast." She used to draw the whole figure, but now she can't get past the eyes. Artistic talent runs in the family, Samierah says. Her mother is a talented artist, an accountant who recently started an art-supply business. Her parents are divorced; her father is in the insurance business in Indiana, where Samierah lived until she was four.

From literature class, the girls head to the meaty AP (advanced placement) European History; the day's subject is the rise of nineteenth-century liberalism. Samierah doesn't stay with it long: She and another friend leave class for a conference with two of the school's counselors. Samierah is a junior, so it's time to think about scheduling college preparatory exams. This spring she'll take the SAT and the ACT, as well as several SAT subject tests.

Her PSAT score, 1080 out of 1600, is solid; her scores in math and verbal are fine, and she is a good writer. In addition to being vice president of her class, she works part-time as an activist with Students 4 Change, a students-rights organization working in conjunction with the Colorado Progressive Coalition. Next year she wants to be Head Girl, the Manual equivalent of a class president.

The counselors wonder if she's interested in attending a university summer program, which would be a way for Samierah to try living away from home, explore schools she's really interested in and strengthen her college application. "Do you want to go to summer school?" one of the counselors asks.

"No," Samierah replies. "I went up to UNC for a visit and sat in on a class. We stayed overnight and ate their food." She clearly does not approve of the campus cuisine. Anyway, she's thinking about working with a local program where she would teach younger children this summer.

She's planning on applying to colleges outside of Colorado -- although not in a city as large as New York. "I'm hesitant on leaving, but you have to take care of business," she says. "It's scary. I haven't been anywhere by myself. Except downtown."


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T.R. Witcher