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

While at Manual, Stein began thinking about education as a career. He credits his teachers, though not in any positive sense, calling many of them disappointing. They left an indelible impression; today he's reluctant to hire any teacher who talks of pleasant student memories. "I usually find that they don't have what it takes to make a kid learn," he says.

Stein attended Middlebury College in Vermont, majoring in anthropology. Corporate America was nursing a fetish for liberal arts majors, and Stein was courted by the business sector before deciding to return to Colorado. He earned a teaching license before heading to Bogotá, Colombia, where he taught English for a year.

After returning, Stein taught for one year in Vermont before moving to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. He was 27 when he decided to go for a master's degree at Stanford, returning to Colorado a year later with his now wife, Mariah Dickson. By then he'd begun thinking about the problems he'd seen firsthand. He found an archival photograph depicting a 1920s-era teacher pointing at a globe while she stands before two orderly rows of desks. The students are paying obedient attention even though the class is being held on an airplane. "That was the metaphor that organized all my questions," Stein says. "You have this new technology and this access to resources, but you're still teaching in the same old way. Why not look out the window? Why not explore the world itself?"

Stein's Harvard experience also informed his approach at RMSEL. "I'd become decreasingly philosophical and increasingly pragmatic," he says. "I read the literature of what works." He spent a lot of time shaping the school's culture, a topic that saturates current educational theory but then was still emerging. The new approach—"intentional culture"—has been adopted by most of Denver's best schools. A combination of slogans, rituals, expectations, and "core values" that create a unique, intense learning environment, it requires concentrated indoctrination for students and faculty. At the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), for example, all staff members spend two weeks each summer at a retreat, building community and a sense of "100 percent accountability," as principal Bill Kurtz puts it. Students are then "inducted" into the culture each new school year with the goal of ingraining the ethos into a kind of secular religion. When a DSST student was recently caught stealing, for example, he had to ask the entire school for forgiveness, outlining expected consequences and the support he hoped to receive in his efforts to improve. The approach has proven highly successful, but it demands extraordinary time and emotional investments from faculty. It also requires a strong leader.