Longform

The Next Test

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Most school districts that ended busing have seen the gap widen between low-income, inner-city, mostly minority schools and affluent, mostly white schools. But at this point, the debate over busing is largely relegated to academics. "Within the narrow communities you still have this tremendous passion on both sides, they really care about it, and there's really intense debate," says Nagel. "If you go to a wider political arena, they don't care anymore. They think decrees aren't in place, there's no more busing, whatever happened, happened. Most people don't have a huge stake in it anymore."


Friday: A heavy snow fell on Denver last night, which means there are plenty of absentees from Manual this morning. A good ten minutes after the bell, only eighteen kids have managed to straggle from the locker room into the gym. The kids stretch out, run a weak three laps, and then most of the boys play hoops while the girls work out to a Tae Bo tape.

Sophomore James "Elvis" Nuñez heads down to the weight room. He's a wrestler, and while his build is slight, his arms are ripped as he works through a series of bicep curls and then moves on to the bench press. He lettered last year in wrestling at 130 pounds, and he's anxious about an upcoming regional meet. Although the team as a whole is unlikely to reach the state finals, Elvis will if he can win three or four of his matches.

The key to doing well, he explains, is the look. Just before a match, he gives his opponent a dark stare, looks right at him, doesn't blink. "Strength doesn't matter as much as heart," he says.

Elvis's schedule is loose this semester, and he's taking advantage. "People tell me I'm smart but I don't always apply myself," he admits. So he's thinking about signing up for the AVID program to get ready for college. He already went through Manual's summer-school program in math, even though he'd passed his math class. He did it because he wanted something to do, and it beat staying home all summer long.

Elvis's father lives in Mexico; his mother, an attorney, lives in Wyoming. Last year he lived with an aunt on the southern edge of the metro area and attended Highlands Ranch High School, about as far away from inner-city Denver as you can get. But he and his aunt didn't get along, so he came back to the Cole neighborhood -- the neighborhood he grew up in -- to live with his grandmother.

There's no doubt that Highlands Ranch had more of everything. Manual is "not even close," he says, to having the same kinds of resources and materials for students. But while he got along fine with the suburb's largely white student population, the teachers there just weren't right for him. "Our teachers are great," he says. "I learned just as much at Manual as I did at Highlands Ranch. The teachers at Manual care about us 100 percent."

One of Elvis's classmates, a black sophomore named Chase Maxwell, attended George Washington last year and echoes his friend's thoughts about Manual, applauding how much the teachers care about the students. And Myeisha Young, a junior, actually views the IMP math classes with pride, pointing out that "only George's smartest students can take them" -- whereas all of Manual's students take them.

As Elvis and Chase head to their next class, hall monitors wearing long green windbreakers emblazoned with the word "Security" start shouting: "Hurry up, ladies! You're going to be late!"

Elvis's second class is Biology. While his classmates snack on cookies and Butterfingers, the morning announcements come on in Spanish and English: Auditions for Samierah's talent show start next week.

After the students take a short quiz, Elvis leaves class to check on a science book -- he still hasn't gotten his biology textbook. A sign on the locked book-office door directs him to the counseling center. But a counselor there is too busy to get the book, so Elvis drops by the library, where librarian Debbie Schmuck is in the process of ordering thousands of books for the next term. The DPS goal is ten books for every student. Manual has six books per student, which means Schmuck is hoping to get about 4,400 more.

On to lunch, where Elvis gets a bean burrito smothered in chile, applesauce and milk for about $2. Students enter their ID numbers into a computer at the end of the line, and the cost of the meal is automatically deducted from their accounts. There are no knives, not even plastic ones.

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T.R. Witcher