Rob Stein is not Superman

One of Colorado's most gifted educators has been tapped to rehabilitate Manual High School, closed last year amid considerable controversy. Will dedication to his alma mater be enough, or is he simply in denial?

August 2007

On an afternoon in May, Dr. Rob Stein told me about "the absolute worst day" of his life. It was 1998, and Stein was the principal of the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning. Founded on an Outward Bound approach to education, the school regularly takes its students on "voyages of learning." Stein and a teacher had accompanied 14 students on a multiday backpacking trip from Copper Mountain to Camp Hale.

A few days into it, at 11,500 feet, a 16-year old-sophomore started complaining of shortness of breath. Thinking the boy had altitude sickness, Stein, the teacher, and two students began to evacuate him. A quarter mile down the trail, he collapsed. They were several hours from the nearest telephone. The teacher and one of the students ran for help while Stein and the other student stayed behind with the boy. He had stopped breathing and Stein couldn't find a pulse. He began CPR. Over an hour later, he gave up.

Back up the trail, the rest of the students were oblivious. Stein knew they needed to tend to the group while remaining with the boy's body. A day away from civilization, he desperately wanted to avoid the group grief that can escalate to hysteria among adolescents. He and the student took turns going back to report, rehearsing their story line by line. "We were careful so that we wouldn't have to overtly say that he was fine," Stein says. "We told them they didn't need to worry. We were taking care of him and help was coming."

Around midnight, a helicopter arrived to retrieve the boy's body. The next morning, Stein and the students hiked out. By the time they reached the school, Stein had activated all resources, making sure parents and counselors were on hand to comfort the children. The boy's parents held a memorial service at the school two days after his death, and an autopsy later revealed that he had a previously undiscovered heart defect.

Stein revisits this "anchor experience" whenever he's faced with a relatively insignificant annoyance—when a parent complains, say, "because their kid gets a B instead of an A and jeopardizes their chance of getting into Princeton." It helps him distinguish between a merely bad day and the utterly dreadful one. It's a distinction he may have to make again and again in the coming year.

Stein told me this story in the living room of his nondescript, two-story home on the edge of an uneven middle-class section of the Congress Park neighborhood, just across the fence from a reservoir. The setting seemed strange. Aside from the Harvard Ph.D., he has a master's degree from Stanford. He has served, most recently, as headmaster of Graland Country Day School, one of the city's most exclusive private schools, earning around $150,000 annually—far more than most of his neighbors and enough to make friends question his sense of place. One of them recently asked Stein why he hasn't moved to a more upscale neighborhood. He replied simply, "This is where I want to live."

We were awaiting the hastily assembled group of mostly young, wholly eager teachers—the staff Stein has hired to help do what is widely, if quietly, considered impossible: make something successful out of Manual, the public school that was shuttered in 2006 after nearly a decade of dismal test scores, plummeting attendance, and radical reforms. Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet described the closing as "an admission of complete failure." Community members, mostly poor black and Latino families, responded with rage, calling Bennet a racist. Students threatened to chain themselves to the school doors. One activist compared the closing to an ethnic cleansing. There were calls for boycotts and hostile takeovers. Bennet promised he would reopen Manual as a "premier" high school in 2007, prompting more than a few community members to mutter the Spanish phrase: Entre dicho y hecho hay arto estrecho—There is a long road between said and done. In March, less than six months before Manual's slated reopening, DPS finally hired Stein to travel that road. In August he will preside over a single class of 179 freshmen, and the school will add a new freshman class every year through 2010.

Many of Stein's colleagues advised him to turn down the job. The district had waited too long, they said; there wasn't enough time to set curriculum, hire staff, and define a new vision. It was a setup for a high-profile failure; in the previous year, The New Yorker published an 11,000-word article on the school and Business Week ran a cover story. It's not that Stein simply must restore Manual's former glory days. The truth is, he must create something that has never existed anywhere: a high-performing, publicly funded high school whose students are overwhelmingly low-income minorities who often do not speak English at home.

Since closing, Manual has become embroiled in various and sometimes antagonistic agendas. The firestorm guarantees that Bennet's reputation will rise or fall with the school, and his legacy is now hitched to Stein's wagon. Meanwhile, the surrounding community has mobilized to assert its influence. New groups like the Northeastern Community Congress for Education are demanding transparency and attention. "We make them listen," says NCCE member Dyrell Willis, a former Manual student. "We give our input whether they want it or not." The group has Bennet's ear and likely will expect the same consideration from Stein. "He will have to make a serious, clear, open, visible effort to involve the community," says Jorge Merida, the influential local activist who compared Manual's closing to an ethnic cleansing.

The school has gained so much national attention, it's become a generic symbol of America's widespread urban education woes. Stein will be under the microscope, says Ginger Maloney, dean of the College of Education at the University of Denver, "because everyone wants to know if it's even possible for urban schools as we now know them to succeed."

While many agree that if anyone can help Manual, it's Rob Stein, many of them also say the school can't be helped. In the United States, the number of low-income neighborhoods boasting high-performing public high schools can be counted on two hands, at most. The majority are heavily subsidized by organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the benefactor that already sunk nearly $1 million into the failed effort to save Manual. In 2001, the foundation donated money and personnel to carve Manual into three specialized high schools, but the plan seemed to succeed only at destroying whatever meager school spirit remained. Whatever disease afflicted Manual, it has resisted some desperate remedies, so what cure can Stein really hope to offer?