Feature

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

It's difficult to fault any neighborhood for being actively engaged in educating its children. It's easy, however, to recognize the consequences of one that feels overly entitled to influence that education. So far, those consequences have been largely negative. Partly to appease aggrieved Manual parents, Bennet appointed a community council to help hire the new principal, which dragged out the process. Bennet says the delay enabled Manual to land the right candidate; it's also why many local observers talk about Manual's potential in the past conditional—something that "might have been." Common consensus says it takes at least a year to set up a successful school opening. While Stein has hired his teachers, he may not have had enough time to define a culture of success for Manual, much less institute one. "All of us who told Rob to take the job when he applied in October told him not to take it when he got the job in March," Dickson says.

Future battles already loom. The same community group that selected Stein also prepared a report titled "Recommendations for The New Manual High School." It concluded that Manual should be re-established as a comprehensive high school—like the old one, only better. "Everything I know about successful high schools tells me they have to be more niche than that," Stein says. "It has to be designed around the needs of the students. A comprehensive high school is designed around no particular needs at all." He believes Manual's still unspecified niche must be as well defined as schools like RMSEL and DSST. That means Manual would ideally become a successful magnet school, drawing students from a wide swath of Denver. That would also mean the school's center of gravity would pass, once again, out of the immediate area.

It's impossible to imagine the community reacting to that eventuality as anything but one more bitter betrayal. When I asked Jorge Merida, a cochair of the council, why they chose Stein in the first place, he said, "We were looking for someone who understood the anguish and the struggle that this community has gone through.... This school cannot succeed as a separated island from its surroundings. They have to be together." While Stein evidently convinced them that he feels their pain, it's unclear how much he will—or should—continue to empathize once he actually has students to educate. All things considered, it's quite possible that the best interests of the children don't entirely align with the immediate desires of the broader community.

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