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?
This apparent disconnect in expectations could spell frustration, which clearly weighs on Stein. He draws an analogy to two runners fleeing from a bear. "A lot of people think I have to outrun the bear," he says. "Really, I just have to outrun the other runner"—the Manual status quo. "We just have to outperform prior performance, then we have to learn why and how we did it, and then we have to outperform that performance," he says. "In that case, shame on me if I can't do a little better than the school has done before."
Manual High School's new staff arrived at Stein's house after our interview, 10 or 12 teachers and a few consultants. It was only their second meeting, yet everyone clearly was already invested, concerned, and excited to be there, even though most of them were still working other jobs.
Harp, the former Manual principal, reported that the school now had 62 kids enrolled, with 230 eighth-graders still making up their minds. He said the expected ratio of 70 percent Latino and 30 percent African- American was looking more like 60/40. Stein apologized for not bringing the customary reading. He asked for input from specific members and provided direction when the conversation strayed. At one point, a science teacher paused to say, "This is really nice. It's been a while since I've been exposed to this, where everything is structured, everything goes, everything flows, you have some time. It's nice to go to a meeting where you know you're going to have that stability."
The scene reminded me of something the RMSEL teacher Jen Wood had said: "He can make those kids and those teachers care about that school. He can make them proud of where they are." She repeats the same refrain I'd heard from everyone else, "If anyone can do this, Rob Stein can." Implicit in that faithful assertion, however, is a difficult question, one few people are willing to ask yet: What if he can't? m
Jeffrey Oliver's last story for 5280 was "Scraping By" in May 2007.