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NCLB Outrages

Manual students caught in a whirlpool

Yvonne Comment: Students like Tito are the ones who suffer from the high-stakes testing frenzy. NCLB Act has not helped those in need

By Tina Griego

Tito Martinez is a junior at Manual High School, which, when I met him nine days ago, meant he would graduate from the school and now means he will not.

This turn of events comes courtesy of the Denver Public Schools board bombshell: instead of a gradual shutdown, Manual will be shuttered after this school year ends. Students will go to other schools. Manual is to reopen in the fall of 2007 with freshmen only. One class a year will be added until the fall of 2010, when a full house should be achieved.

I was out of town when this sudden change was announced and was as stunned as most people to hear the news. Though I support this forced reincarnation, I could not begrudge the Manual students who marched out of class to shout and cry in protest outside district headquarters Friday. It is precisely this quality among students, their passion and idealism that inspires so many adults.

But, Manual was dying. Long before the school board pulled the plug. It was doomed by low academic test scores. By plummeting enrollment. More than half the neighborhood students who can go to Manual don't. Seventy-two percent of those freshmen that did choose Manual in 2002 were gone by last fall.

This is the combination that breeds the snake that eats its tail. Enrollment sets staffing. Staffing determines course availability. Course availability and standardized test scores help drive enrollment. That's School Funding 101 and it still surprises me to hear teachers and coaches suggest that if Manual just offered more courses like East High School - overcrowded East all would be well.

Nothing about this is that simple. Ask the administrators at North or West or Lincoln high schools. These high-poverty schools with their declining enrollments and low test scores are caught in the same whirlpool and, as hard as they swim, every year the sucking sound grows louder.

"I doubt this would be happening if this were not a minority school in a low-income neighborhood," several people have said about Manual.

That's true as far as it goes. Unspoken is whether it would have needed to happen if this were not a high-poverty school. I am not saying that such schools cannot find academic success. They can and do. But, as I've said before, it's always more difficult to achieve. That's one of the reasons for the call for more economic integration. One consequence of poverty is that it creates instability. Instability requires extra support and extra support is first to go when enrollment dips and budgets shrink. Remember this the next time you wonder why our school counselors have 300 to 400 students each.

"What I came away with last week was a very strong sense that the kids had been marooned up there," superintendent Michael Bennet told me Sunday. "They're in a place where opportunities continue to shrink and were going to continue to shrink and that creates a frame of reference for what it is possible to achieve. It begins to lower the standards of expectation for your life."

None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the capacity of children to learn at the highest levels. Should I repeat that? Perhaps I need to. At the Manual meeting I attended, a longtime teacher and coach told a few hundred people - almost half of them students - that while the school's standardized test scores are low, they could not measure character. And while she would like all children to go to college, she said, realism demands acknowledgment that not all will and not everyone is meant to be a leader. "Leaders," she told students, "need followers."

I think the jaws of the school board members present dropped simultaneously. I have become accustomed to low expectations for poor students expressed in veiled statements about how success should be redefined for them. I have seen how such expectations become implicit in undemanding assignments and lax enforcement of school rules. But I have rarely heard them explicitly stated by a teacher to students, and if that's become acceptable at Manual we should have closed it years ago.

It's understandable, but frustrating, that people are reacting to what is happening to Manual now as an emergency when the real emergency is what has been happening in our school district all along. The dropout rate and achievement gap, a political culture that has stifled real leadership and innovation, an academic culture that has fostered lassitude, these are the crises.

Last August, I called Manual a "disaster" and heard from a teacher at the school who said that description was like a "knife in the gut." In a high-stakes testing era, effort alone doesn't seem to count anymore, she wrote, but Manual students were making progress, academic, social and personal. Tito told me he was one of those students. He was flourishing at Manual, he said, partly because the small school structure meant extra attention. Manual didn't fail him, he told me.

I wanted to tell him that an action as drastic as closing a school to start again is never an indictment of individual students or teachers, but of a bureaucracy on autopilot, a political system that ignores the powerless unless it is patronizing them and a community that has failed to understand apathy has a price.

I don't expect to make Tito feel any better when I say I'm certain he will land on his feet. He's articulate and intelligent and curious. That he found his place among the Thunderbolts is cause for congratulations. That hundreds more did not is reason for change.


— Tina Griego
Rocky Mountain News


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