Longform

The Next Test

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Manual High School has had a bad rap for a long time -- before integration, during integration and now after integration. In the days of federal court-ordered busing, the school drew nearly half of its population from affluent white neighborhoods such as Park Hill and Crestmoor. But even then, white kids and black kids were often tracked into different classes, and many parents felt the school was permitting de facto segregation. "I think that busing was part of an educational, analytical guess, hoping that physical integration would resolve educational issues of black students," says attorney Dale Sadler, who is a member of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity. "What is needed is academic inclusion, and you don't get that through busing."

When returning control of the school district to local authorities, federal judge Richard Matsch argued that minorities had much greater power than they did in the early '70s, when Denver's busing case -- the first outside the South -- was raging. After Matsch ruled that busing to achieve integration was no longer mandatory, the district was redrawn, and Denver Public Schools officials turned their attention to neighborhood schools, which promised to keep kids closer to home and to strengthen relationships between schools and communities. But many parents of the minority children who would be attending those neighborhood schools worried that the schools symbolized resegregation and a return to inequality ("Forward to the Past," January 23, 1997).

Overnight, Manual's demographics underwent a dramatic change. What had been a largely white-and-black school, split between the poor and middle classes, suddenly became a mostly brown-and-black, and almost entirely poor, school; the affluent white kids went off to George Washington or East high schools. And that wasn't the only change at Manual.

Between 1997 and 2000, for instance, reading scores declined for freshmen, sophomores and, most notably, juniors -- who fell from the 67th percentile to the 38th percentile. While other district high schools have witnessed falling dropout rates over the years, Manual's rate has risen, from 76 kids (4.4 percent of the student population) in the 1995-96 school year to 106 kids (or 7.1 percent) in 1999-00. During the 1998-99 school year, 75 percent of Manual's students were on a free- or reduced-lunch program; just 27 percent participated in 1992-93.

The concern over such disparities increased in 1997, when Governor Bill Owens announced the introduction of the Colorado Student Assessment Program, a "high-stakes" test that will be used to grade the performance of schools statewide.

The CSAP test has people at Manual really anxious. Students feel pressured not to let their school down on what they've been told is a hard exam (last spring, two-thirds of the state's eighth-graders failed the CSAP's math portion, and half failed the science portion). Teachers and administrators are concerned because after the end of this academic year, schools will be graded based on their students' scores -- and schools will be forced to improve those scores in following years or risk being converted into charter schools, or closed down altogether. Because the schools will be graded on a bell curve, a small percentage are certain to receive failing grades. (Originally a failing grade would have been an F; responding to criticism, Owens changed it to the slightly more tactful "unsatisfactory.") Principal Sutton expects her school to be one of those at the bottom. So does everyone else.

Sutton has had her hands full lately. A piece published in the Denver Post in early February claimed that Sutton was considering converting Manual into a charter -- before it had the chance to get a failing grade. Sutton was furious over the story, and DPS quickly issued a statement claiming her comments were made last October, "when the school staff and community were studying 'any and all' options to improve...The school was not seeking charter-school status."

"That is so wrong," Sutton says of the Post story. "It's always the disenfranchised who get the brunt of things."

In fact, last fall the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity asked the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to investigate why black students at DPS high schools don't perform as well as their white counterparts. The commission is forming a task force to assess four Denver high schools: East, Montbello, George Washington and Manual. The task-force members will include parents and students, representatives from prominent black organizations, and officials with state and local educational groups and agencies. From their work, the commission hopes to find solutions for the achievement gap.

Manual administrators and students alike resent being portrayed as members of Denver's poor school, or ghetto school, or the school most likely to fail. They have an infectious, chip-on-their-shoulder pride that's reflected in their very vital school. Manual's classes are challenging, and the school has created its own college-prep curriculum, known as AVID, that helps college-bound students form study groups, learn to ask the right questions in lectures and take better notes. What's more, sophomores and seniors are required to submit portfolios of extracurricular work before they can move on to the next grade or graduate. The portfolios are designed to make students respect learning and see it as part of the culture of the school -- a mindset often lost during middle school.

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T.R. Witcher