On a Wednesday in April, students in Advanced Placement Human Geography at Manual High School were examining a question close to home: What would happen if a new middle school moved in with Manual?
“If you were to start a school in the Manual neighborhood, how would you adjust your way of doing a school to acculturate to this area?” Novaj Miles, a sophomore, asked Kurt Dennis, the principal of McAuliffe International, a middle school in more affluent Park Hill.
“Kids need to be safe, they need to be challenged,” Dennis said. “But beyond that, more than anything, I need to learn and listen. If we go through this process and the community says yes, step one will be a lot of listening.”
The question was not theoretical. Denver Public Schools released an updated Call for Quality Schools today requesting proposals for a new middle school that would likely be located in the Manual High School building. A new school would open in 2016-17.
McAuliffe International is one of several groups that expressed interest in opening a new middle school in the near northeast earlier this spring.
Christopher DeRemer, a Manual history and geography teacher, wanted to make sure students had a forum to develop and express their opinions about the change. So his class launched a research project focused on school policies, the demographics of their neighborhood, and the groups interested in opening schools.
“We wanted to look at how cities offer services like quality schools and quality transportation to all of their neighborhoods,” DeRemer said. “We’re trying to figure out, is DPS serving this neighborhood, and is a middle school the right thing?”
DeRemer said the project had been spurred by the students’ study of gentrification. Students worried that the district would create a school tailored to the needs of new community members rather than existing community members.
The class presented its findings Wednesday to a group of teachers, students, community members, and school district officials.
Manual has been the subject of a number of overhauls aimed at addressing low academic achievement, including a closure, in recent years. The school was identified last year as Denver’s lowest-performing high school. Manual will have a new principal and a new biotech program starting next year. [Read Chalkbeat’s reporting on the history of school improvement efforts at Manual.]
After all those changes, some Manual students are wary of more interruptions to a school they love. “There are always threats of changing Manual into different things,” said senior Isreal Felan.
But Manual has just over 400 students in a building designed for well over a thousand. The district is looking for a middle school to use some of that empty space and to create a stronger feeder pattern that would funnel students into Manual.
During Wednesday’s presentation, sophomore Nancy Chavez said that her group was wary of sharing a building with middle-schoolers. But, she said, having another school in the building would help boost enrollment and bring in more funds and programs.
District Chief of Schools Susana Cordova, one of the audience members, asked the students how they thought the district should manage the increasing gentrification in their area.
“I think it’s extremely difficult,” Felan said. “We’ve done research on it happening. The white population is 49 percent, but many of them still don’t send their kids here.”
Felan said he preferred a proposal from the Denver School of History Speech and Debate, whose founder, Barbara Allen, also visited the class. That school is aiming to be placed in Manual only temporarily.
Jabari Lottie, a freshmen, suggested that the school might hold more public events to bring neighborhood residents together. He said he envisioned future for the school where classes were full and basketball games were crowded with students and neighbors cheering on Manual’s Thunderbolts.
Students were also interested in how much interaction would take place between middle and high schoolers. Many described Manual as a family. One group suggested that the district create a new Manual Middle School that would share the school’s logo.
“If a middle school’s going to be here, we want to make a connection with that,” said Lottie.
Today’s new Call for Quality Schools also includes a request for two new middle schools in southwest Denver, including one to replace Henry World Middle School.