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

During Stein's tenure, RMSEL instructors adopted the slogan, "We are crew, not passengers." Teachers were "crew leaders" who gave students remarkable autonomy over their own learning. Traditional letter grades were out; instead, students produced a portfolio of work to be judged by teachers and peers. The kids spent months at a time immersed in single subjects—World War II, the American Dream, the Harlem renaissance, Galileo and the scientific revolution, et cetera—which they then explored through literature, museum visits, science projects, in-depth interviews, memoir reading, and travel.

Stein's teachers produced portfolios as well. "He always said that it was his job to make sure everyone in the building was learning," one RMSEL teacher says. Every week he placed articles and research papers into staff mailboxes, things he thought they should know. He devoted staff meetings to professional development and sharing student work. Each meeting started with a reading of pertinent literature, and he constantly prodded his staff to eat, drink, and breathe the school's educational mission. "He didn't have much patience with people or projects that wasted his time," Wood says. "At other schools, my God, we'd spend an hour and a half on whether a kid could wear a hat."

Stein's style is not for everyone. At both Graland and RMSEL, I spoke with people who felt Stein is arrogant, or worse, insensitive. Even hard-core fans like Wood say he can be a difficult boss. "I can't even count how many times he's made me cry," she says, relating a story about a time he pushed her so hard she announced the tears before they started flowing. "He said, 'I really don't care, you need to listen to me,'" Wood recalls, adding that when Stein wants to get something done, "he doesn't think too much about somebody's feelings."

Dickson, now the director of curriculum and instruction at DSST, says any insensitivity on her husband's part works both ways. "He has an incredibly thick skin," she says. "He doesn't take things personally. You can yell and scream at him and it just rolls right off." She pauses before joking: "It's a wonderful quality for a principal, but a terrible one for a husband."

To grasp just how difficult Stein's new job will be, it helps to understand the process that produced Manual High School's failure. In 1995, the school's court-ordered busing stopped. For 20 years, it had been recognized as a model institution, capable of regularly turning out Ivy Leaguers like Stein and famous writers such as Ted Conover. Few wanted or cared to look below the surface. "There were two schools under one roof," Stein says. "There was the school that was there before busing started, predominantly low income, African-American. Then there was the school that came in on the bus, predominantly suburban, white, and affluent. They were in the same building but not much in the same classes."