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

The 290,000-square-foot Manual High School has sat just northwest of City Park since before 1896, the year of its first graduating class. The school took its name from the theory that children might learn better through labor than from books. Boys focused on forge and machine shop; girls on sewing and cooking. Both sexes attended woodworking. By the 1950s, the school began focusing more on academics and less on training.

"I saw it when it was just a wonderful school," says Gladys White, Manual's head of security for the past 30 years. "I think about the kids. How good they were. They listened. They liked going to class.... Then, the kids just wasn't putting no effort into trying to learn."

I'd met White at Manual's front doors, which advertised a coming open house with Dr. Stein. I'd asked for a tour and White invited me to walk around, though she warned, "We never had nobody come forward and look at how bad it was." She was referring, apparently, to the missing ceiling tiles and broken desks that were common even before the closing. The football field was already turning yellow under the early summer sun. Weeds lined every crack in the parking lot, and half-full dumpsters stood askew, taking up spaces that faculty cars once occupied. "You'd think being closed a year we'd be on top of things," says Tim Harp, a former Manual principal and the man charged with getting the building ready for the reopening. "But shoot, dude, we're almost at the end of the school year and not a thing's been done."

The scene could hardly have been more different than the one I witnessed the day before, when I met Stein at Graland Country Day School, across the street from Cranmer Park in the Hilltop neighborhood. The complex, which comprises nine orderly brick buildings, is ringed on three sides by leafy trees and mansions. The directions I downloaded from MapQuest said I would need special permission to enter the property, and I had to upgrade my Web browser just to look at the school's website. As I arrived, a group of students practiced lacrosse on a pristine lawn behind the main building. The contrast between Graland and Manual felt like the difference between Dead Poet's Society and Lean On Me.

Stein's office was in a two-story structure dominated, like much of the campus, by that unmistakable shade of green: ivy. At 47, Stein appears much younger; after seeing him in recent media reports, former Harvard peers were amazed at how little he has aged. While his well-trimmed sideburns are peppered gray, his overall appearance is boyish. At 5 feet, 9 inches, he is stick thin, a result, perhaps, of his being in perpetual motion. A Graland teacher says, "If you want to have a conversation with Dr. Stein, you say, 'Which way are you going and I'll walk with you.'"

Stein's relationship with DPS started out strained. "The past few months have been difficult," he says. "They keep forgetting that I don't actually work for them yet. Someone else is writing my paycheck." Even so, by May he had already begun holding weekly meetings with future staff members. He was also speaking with some Manual parents and community members, many still furious over the school's closing. "There is a little bit of everybody wanting me on their side, everybody waiting to see if I'm going to meet their needs," he says. When we sat down in his office, however, he seemed almost preternaturally relaxed, stretching his legs out in front of him and slouching in his seat.

Those who have worked with Stein often call the experience a career highlight. "The thing I remember most is that I couldn't believe I was working at that school," says Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning teacher Jen Wood. "I felt underqualified in so many ways. Rob was just so inspiring. He was waiting for everybody to step up." Deb Schukar, an administrator at RMSEL under Stein, calls him "brilliant." His results support the claim. When Stein landed at RMSEL in 1996, the school was a start-up still gaining traction. When he left five years later, it was routinely producing some of the highest test scores in Colorado and had been recognized by national media as one of the best schools in the country.

Stein was born and raised in Denver, his connection to Manual not new, but renewed; he graduated from the school in 1978, a different era in countless ways. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court, promoting desegregation, had ordered DPS to bus upper-middle-class white kids from outlying neighborhoods to Manual, which then was 90 percent African-American.