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

On an afternoon in May, Dr. Rob Stein told me about "the absolute worst day" of his life. It was 1998, and Stein was the principal of the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning. Founded on an Outward Bound approach to education, the school regularly takes its students on "voyages of learning." Stein and a teacher had accompanied 14 students on a multiday backpacking trip from Copper Mountain to Camp Hale.

A few days into it, at 11,500 feet, a 16-year old-sophomore started complaining of shortness of breath. Thinking the boy had altitude sickness, Stein, the teacher, and two students began to evacuate him. A quarter mile down the trail, he collapsed. They were several hours from the nearest telephone. The teacher and one of the students ran for help while Stein and the other student stayed behind with the boy. He had stopped breathing and Stein couldn't find a pulse. He began CPR. Over an hour later, he gave up.

Back up the trail, the rest of the students were oblivious. Stein knew they needed to tend to the group while remaining with the boy's body. A day away from civilization, he desperately wanted to avoid the group grief that can escalate to hysteria among adolescents. He and the student took turns going back to report, rehearsing their story line by line. "We were careful so that we wouldn't have to overtly say that he was fine," Stein says. "We told them they didn't need to worry. We were taking care of him and help was coming."

Around midnight, a helicopter arrived to retrieve the boy's body. The next morning, Stein and the students hiked out. By the time they reached the school, Stein had activated all resources, making sure parents and counselors were on hand to comfort the children. The boy's parents held a memorial service at the school two days after his death, and an autopsy later revealed that he had a previously undiscovered heart defect.

Stein revisits this "anchor experience" whenever he's faced with a relatively insignificant annoyance—when a parent complains, say, "because their kid gets a B instead of an A and jeopardizes their chance of getting into Princeton." It helps him distinguish between a merely bad day and the utterly dreadful one. It's a distinction he may have to make again and again in the coming year.

Stein told me this story in the living room of his nondescript, two-story home on the edge of an uneven middle-class section of the Congress Park neighborhood, just across the fence from a reservoir. The setting seemed strange. Aside from the Harvard Ph.D., he has a master's degree from Stanford. He has served, most recently, as headmaster of Graland Country Day School, one of the city's most exclusive private schools, earning around $150,000 annually—far more than most of his neighbors and enough to make friends question his sense of place. One of them recently asked Stein why he hasn't moved to a more upscale neighborhood. He replied simply, "This is where I want to live."

We were awaiting the hastily assembled group of mostly young, wholly eager teachers—the staff Stein has hired to help do what is widely, if quietly, considered impossible: make something successful out of Manual, the public school that was shuttered in 2006 after nearly a decade of dismal test scores, plummeting attendance, and radical reforms. Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet described the closing as "an admission of complete failure." Community members, mostly poor black and Latino families, responded with rage, calling Bennet a racist. Students threatened to chain themselves to the school doors. One activist compared the closing to an ethnic cleansing. There were calls for boycotts and hostile takeovers. Bennet promised he would reopen Manual as a "premier" high school in 2007, prompting more than a few community members to mutter the Spanish phrase: Entre dicho y hecho hay arto estrecho—There is a long road between said and done. In March, less than six months before Manual's slated reopening, DPS finally hired Stein to travel that road. In August he will preside over a single class of 179 freshmen, and the school will add a new freshman class every year through 2010.

Many of Stein's colleagues advised him to turn down the job. The district had waited too long, they said; there wasn't enough time to set curriculum, hire staff, and define a new vision. It was a setup for a high-profile failure; in the previous year, The New Yorker published an 11,000-word article on the school and Business Week ran a cover story. It's not that Stein simply must restore Manual's former glory days. The truth is, he must create something that has never existed anywhere: a high-performing, publicly funded high school whose students are overwhelmingly low-income minorities who often do not speak English at home.

Since closing, Manual has become embroiled in various and sometimes antagonistic agendas. The firestorm guarantees that Bennet's reputation will rise or fall with the school, and his legacy is now hitched to Stein's wagon. Meanwhile, the surrounding community has mobilized to assert its influence. New groups like the Northeastern Community Congress for Education are demanding transparency and attention. "We make them listen," says NCCE member Dyrell Willis, a former Manual student. "We give our input whether they want it or not." The group has Bennet's ear and likely will expect the same consideration from Stein. "He will have to make a serious, clear, open, visible effort to involve the community," says Jorge Merida, the influential local activist who compared Manual's closing to an ethnic cleansing.

The school has gained so much national attention, it's become a generic symbol of America's widespread urban education woes. Stein will be under the microscope, says Ginger Maloney, dean of the College of Education at the University of Denver, "because everyone wants to know if it's even possible for urban schools as we now know them to succeed."

While many agree that if anyone can help Manual, it's Rob Stein, many of them also say the school can't be helped. In the United States, the number of low-income neighborhoods boasting high-performing public high schools can be counted on two hands, at most. The majority are heavily subsidized by organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the benefactor that already sunk nearly $1 million into the failed effort to save Manual. In 2001, the foundation donated money and personnel to carve Manual into three specialized high schools, but the plan seemed to succeed only at destroying whatever meager school spirit remained. Whatever disease afflicted Manual, it has resisted some desperate remedies, so what cure can Stein really hope to offer?

The 290,000-square-foot Manual High School has sat just northwest of City Park since before 1896, the year of its first graduating class. The school took its name from the theory that children might learn better through labor than from books. Boys focused on forge and machine shop; girls on sewing and cooking. Both sexes attended woodworking. By the 1950s, the school began focusing more on academics and less on training.

"I saw it when it was just a wonderful school," says Gladys White, Manual's head of security for the past 30 years. "I think about the kids. How good they were. They listened. They liked going to class.... Then, the kids just wasn't putting no effort into trying to learn."

I'd met White at Manual's front doors, which advertised a coming open house with Dr. Stein. I'd asked for a tour and White invited me to walk around, though she warned, "We never had nobody come forward and look at how bad it was." She was referring, apparently, to the missing ceiling tiles and broken desks that were common even before the closing. The football field was already turning yellow under the early summer sun. Weeds lined every crack in the parking lot, and half-full dumpsters stood askew, taking up spaces that faculty cars once occupied. "You'd think being closed a year we'd be on top of things," says Tim Harp, a former Manual principal and the man charged with getting the building ready for the reopening. "But shoot, dude, we're almost at the end of the school year and not a thing's been done."

The scene could hardly have been more different than the one I witnessed the day before, when I met Stein at Graland Country Day School, across the street from Cranmer Park in the Hilltop neighborhood. The complex, which comprises nine orderly brick buildings, is ringed on three sides by leafy trees and mansions. The directions I downloaded from MapQuest said I would need special permission to enter the property, and I had to upgrade my Web browser just to look at the school's website. As I arrived, a group of students practiced lacrosse on a pristine lawn behind the main building. The contrast between Graland and Manual felt like the difference between Dead Poet's Society and Lean On Me.

Stein's office was in a two-story structure dominated, like much of the campus, by that unmistakable shade of green: ivy. At 47, Stein appears much younger; after seeing him in recent media reports, former Harvard peers were amazed at how little he has aged. While his well-trimmed sideburns are peppered gray, his overall appearance is boyish. At 5 feet, 9 inches, he is stick thin, a result, perhaps, of his being in perpetual motion. A Graland teacher says, "If you want to have a conversation with Dr. Stein, you say, 'Which way are you going and I'll walk with you.'"

Stein's relationship with DPS started out strained. "The past few months have been difficult," he says. "They keep forgetting that I don't actually work for them yet. Someone else is writing my paycheck." Even so, by May he had already begun holding weekly meetings with future staff members. He was also speaking with some Manual parents and community members, many still furious over the school's closing. "There is a little bit of everybody wanting me on their side, everybody waiting to see if I'm going to meet their needs," he says. When we sat down in his office, however, he seemed almost preternaturally relaxed, stretching his legs out in front of him and slouching in his seat.

Those who have worked with Stein often call the experience a career highlight. "The thing I remember most is that I couldn't believe I was working at that school," says Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning teacher Jen Wood. "I felt underqualified in so many ways. Rob was just so inspiring. He was waiting for everybody to step up." Deb Schukar, an administrator at RMSEL under Stein, calls him "brilliant." His results support the claim. When Stein landed at RMSEL in 1996, the school was a start-up still gaining traction. When he left five years later, it was routinely producing some of the highest test scores in Colorado and had been recognized by national media as one of the best schools in the country.

Stein was born and raised in Denver, his connection to Manual not new, but renewed; he graduated from the school in 1978, a different era in countless ways. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court, promoting desegregation, had ordered DPS to bus upper-middle-class white kids from outlying neighborhoods to Manual, which then was 90 percent African-American.

While at Manual, Stein began thinking about education as a career. He credits his teachers, though not in any positive sense, calling many of them disappointing. They left an indelible impression; today he's reluctant to hire any teacher who talks of pleasant student memories. "I usually find that they don't have what it takes to make a kid learn," he says.

Stein attended Middlebury College in Vermont, majoring in anthropology. Corporate America was nursing a fetish for liberal arts majors, and Stein was courted by the business sector before deciding to return to Colorado. He earned a teaching license before heading to Bogotá, Colombia, where he taught English for a year.

After returning, Stein taught for one year in Vermont before moving to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. He was 27 when he decided to go for a master's degree at Stanford, returning to Colorado a year later with his now wife, Mariah Dickson. By then he'd begun thinking about the problems he'd seen firsthand. He found an archival photograph depicting a 1920s-era teacher pointing at a globe while she stands before two orderly rows of desks. The students are paying obedient attention even though the class is being held on an airplane. "That was the metaphor that organized all my questions," Stein says. "You have this new technology and this access to resources, but you're still teaching in the same old way. Why not look out the window? Why not explore the world itself?"

Stein's Harvard experience also informed his approach at RMSEL. "I'd become decreasingly philosophical and increasingly pragmatic," he says. "I read the literature of what works." He spent a lot of time shaping the school's culture, a topic that saturates current educational theory but then was still emerging. The new approach—"intentional culture"—has been adopted by most of Denver's best schools. A combination of slogans, rituals, expectations, and "core values" that create a unique, intense learning environment, it requires concentrated indoctrination for students and faculty. At the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), for example, all staff members spend two weeks each summer at a retreat, building community and a sense of "100 percent accountability," as principal Bill Kurtz puts it. Students are then "inducted" into the culture each new school year with the goal of ingraining the ethos into a kind of secular religion. When a DSST student was recently caught stealing, for example, he had to ask the entire school for forgiveness, outlining expected consequences and the support he hoped to receive in his efforts to improve. The approach has proven highly successful, but it demands extraordinary time and emotional investments from faculty. It also requires a strong leader.

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."

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."

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.

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."

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.