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

When busing stopped, the successful part of Manual closed. While it would take 10 years for the other Manual to follow suit, the impact of that first closing was evident almost overnight. Concurrent with a large influx of Hispanic immigrants, the end of busing morphed the student population from a fairly even socioeconomic and ethnic mix to one dominated by poor minorities, many of whom spoke English only as a second language. The percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch soared to more than 70 percent. By 2005, the school was half its normal size, and only half of those students graduated. A scant 19 percent of its students were proficient in reading, a dismal 3 percent in math. The students' performance on standardized tests ranked among the worst in the district. The series of rushed, radical reforms only led to more student flight. As students left, the school lost funding, teachers, popular electives, and more students. The "soft bigotry of low expectations" was evident everywhere, nowhere more blatantly than when one Manual teacher protested the school's closing by arguing that the city needed Manual because, "Leaders need followers."

While no one is publicly saying a turnaround isn't possible, quite a few have said so privately, and Stein knows it. He recently called a friend, a local education expert, to invite him to go for a run. As it happened, the friend was at a bar with three other educators. "He said, 'We were just laying odds on you and Manual,'" Stein recalls. "I asked what my odds were, and he said 3 to 1." Stein then asked who the doubter was. "A few days later I saw my friend and he said, 'I just want you to know that you misunderstood; it was 3 to 1 against.'"

Nancee Braan, a former Manual parent, echoes the hurt felt by many of her neighbors. "When Manual closed, the heart was ripped out of the community," she says. And the sense of insult has fueled a common cause. "There are a number of people that want to see something done," she says. "We're not going to go away until things are done."