Shake up

Manual High principal resigns along with chair of booster group

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Nick Dawkins.

The principal of Manual High School, Nickolas Dawkins, has resigned after helming the northeast Denver school for two and a half years.

Numerous people affiliated with the school community – including the Friends of Manual High School booster group – posted about the surprising development on social media Friday afternoon. A district spokesperson confirmed the resignation.

A letter to the school community from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova highlighted Dawkins’ accomplishments: Manual, which was once shuttered for low-performance, saw its school rating improve during Dawkins’s tenure, more than 90 percent of students say they’re satisfied with their experience, and a majority of families say they would recommend the school. It did not offer any reason for the resignation.

The district provided a copy of Dawkins’s resignation letter. In it, he wrote, “I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me.”

But Dawkins wrote that he’s proud of his time at Manual. “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,” he wrote.

The board chair of Friends of Manual High School, Lainie Hodges, also resigned, according to a post Friday afternoon on the group’s public Facebook page.

“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,” said the post, signed by Hodges. “It was a pleasure to work alongside him and I will forever treasure what Manual is and has been to us.”

Dawkins grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from nearby East High School. He once said a teacher who became like a godmother to him inspired him to go into education. Dawkins taught English at Denver’s South High School before becoming a school leader. He was principal of Hamilton Middle School prior to taking the job at Manual.

“Before I came to Manual I was told by a leader, ‘You are going to ruin your career,'” Dawkins wrote in his resignation letter. “‘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,'” Dawkins wrote.

Manual serves just over 300 students this year. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent are students of color.

The school has experienced significant leadership turnover in the past decade, as well as repeated overhauls of its academic program. In 2006, former superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator, made the controversial decision to close the storied but struggling school, which sparked sharp criticism and backlash from the community.

The district promised to remake Manual into one of the city’s premier high schools. But by 2014, it was once again the lowest-performing high school in Denver as judged by state test scores.

This year, Manual is rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color coded scale. Just shy of 19 percent of ninth graders met expectations on state literacy tests last year.

Dawkins said his vision for Manual was to change the narrative “from a school that’s been having hard times to a school that’s on an upward trajectory and where kids can be found being wildly successful.” Just two weeks ago, Dawkins hosted an event with Mayor Michael Hancock, a high-profile alum, highlighting “Manual’s Med School,” which offers advanced classes intended to help students earn college credits and go on to careers in the medical field.

Community organizer and Manual alum Candi CdeBaca said Dawkins represented what students wanted in a leader in the aftermath of the tumultuous closure and reopening.

“So many principals and teachers and administrators in schools like Manual are trying to teach kids how to leave their community and disconnect from their community, and he was trying to teach kids to be part of their community and be change agents in their community,” she said. “He knew that everything that we needed is right here in our backyard.”

Denver Public Schools is expected early next week to announce the interim principal, spokesman Will Jones said. The district will also announce the details of the process to select a permanent replacement, he said.

Read Dawkins’s full resignation letter below, as well as the letter from Boasberg and Cordova.

Bureau chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.


McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.