‘Why I Left’

Former Manual principal resigned after learning of hostile work environment allegation

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Former Manual High School principal Nickolas Dawkins said in a letter to the school’s staff that he resigned after learning a few days ago that Denver Public Schools received complaints about a hostile work environment at the school.

“It was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators,” he wrote in the letter, which was posted on social media Saturday, a day after his resignation was made public. “I began to draft a resignation letter.”

Denver Public Schools responded to Dawkins’s letter with a statement that said, “In any situations where concerns are raised, the person about whom those concerns are raised has a full opportunity to respond to those concerns and present all relevant facts.”

It’s not clear from Dawkins’s letter what the hostile work environment complaints were about. Reached by phone, he said he couldn’t elaborate. In the letter, he described holding his staff accountable for an incident in which members of Manual’s leadership team allowed marijuana to be brought into the school for a science experiment while he was traveling for a training.

“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,” the letter says. “I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students was questioned.”

Dawkins wrote that the complaints were the most recent challenge in a year filled with them. Other challenges, he wrote, included having to bury “two beloved students,” supporting undocumented students during politically uncertain times, and helping the school community cope with the fear caused by a Thanksgiving Day shooting in Manual’s parking lot.

Dawkins also cited an intense public backlash, including being called racial slurs, after a football game at which Manual supporters say the opposing team displayed the Confederate flag. Officials from that school denied the reports, and the incident became the subject of prolonged media attention.

He wrote that he “shared the sentiment” of a student who asked him, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while?”

Dawkins said the all-encompassing nature of his work at Manual had taken a toll on his family and his personal life. He also cited a recent report on the difficulties encountered by black educators in Denver Public Schools.

“The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart,” he wrote. “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.”

Denver Public Schools said in its statement that the district supports its principals: “We appreciate the very hard work and challenges our school leaders face, particularly in today’s difficult political climate, and we are fully committed to supporting them.”

Here is the full text of Dawkins’s letter:

Why I Left Denver Public Schools

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% 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.

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 for you. As I cared for you I must care for my family as well. Don’t stop shining. Remember, Manual is where the light is.

Nick Dawkins

Go T-Bolts!

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.