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

In discussing why he accepted the Manual job, Stein cites a Hebrew phrase, "Tikkun Olum." Precisely translated, it means, "Heal the world." Among progressive Jews like Stein, however, it describes an ethic of social repair and restoration. "Essentially it means whatever talents we have, we should put them to bear to make the world a better place," he says. "I don't think I need to be living a life that is simply driven by the highest paycheck and the lowest workload and how much fun I can have on the weekends."

Dickson says her husband has only recently recognized his potential. "He's seen what a void there is and how far he can go in filling that void," she says. Still, even she has her doubts about his chances of success at Manual, where she once served as an adviser for the Gates-funded programs. "I tell him that I don't know if this can be done within a district structure," she says. "You can create a school that can serve kids, and you can bring these kids to a much higher level of achievement. But I don't know if this can be done at this moment within DPS." Stein counters that the perfect conditions for success will never exist; Manual has to succeed in a public school setting, where things seldom happen quickly.

One of Stein's primary tasks surely will be managing expectations at DPS and in the community. That will mean refocusing attention from standardized test scores toward less tangible, more attainable achievements. "If you just examine the stats from when the school closed, we aren't going to have Cherry Creek High School in the first year," he says. DSST principal Kurtz put it this way: "Look, he's not Superman. This is going to take a while. Frankly, I guarantee that we are going to have a really hard time sitting down next year and saying, 'Boy, these results are just so incredible that we know he's done it.' More likely, we're going to say, 'There's been some really good things that happened this year, but look at those test scores. Those things are still really low.'"

Stein showed me some notes, a list of expectations from Jaime Aquino, chief academic officer at DPS. It included items such as "growth among students from below grade level to somewhat better than that;" a different sense of community with students "who really want to be there;" focused teachers; a school that wouldn't look like a traditional high school, but one that would be "a model of what a public high school should look like." Stein considers the list reasonable and is particularly happy that it isn't overly focused on test scores. Bennet, however, restates the bottom line: "If we can demonstrate that the students' achievement has grown, that their proficiency has grown by a substantial amount, that will be a success."