P.S. 1 and Manual: An Ill-Suited Match

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I wrote enthusiastically about a proposed partnership between Cole Arts and Science Academy and the Denver School of Science and Technology. The joint venture between Denver Public Schools and a high-performing charter school could, if consummated, provide an excellent option from preschool through high school for children living in the Cole and Whittier neighborhoods.

The idea also won the praise of dignitaries, who showed up in force at a recent Friday afternoon news conference to laud the idea. Mayor John Hickenlooper was there. So was Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll. Oh, and let's not forget DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

I still think this partnership is a great idea. I hope and trust it will proceed. Meanwhile, though, another school in the neighborhood has had a different experience with a similar proposal.

Almost a year ago, Manual High School Principal Rob Stein wrote to Boasberg and the school board "to request that a KIPP Charter School be located on the Manual High School campus in 2010," saying, "KIPP would be a vital addition to the educational choices for Northeast Denver's children, and it would be an ideal partner for facility sharing at Manual."

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, has built a strong national reputation by opening and operating high-performing charter schools serving low-income children in grades 5-8 in cities across the country. Manual, closed during the 2006-07 school year because of chronic low performance and declining enrollment, was in its second year of rebirth when Stein penned the letter.

Though the school has made major strides under his leadership, Stein has come to realize that, as KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg once told him, trying to get 9th-graders who are several years behind in basic skills to graduate on time and ready for college is akin to "throwing a Hail Mary pass into the end zone with no time left on the clock." A strong middle-school partner would be a huge boon to Manual, and the neighborhood.

According to Manual's Leadership Team and School Advisory Council, DPS responded to Stein's request with silence. Stein heard the occasional vague promise about having the discussion at the appropriate time, but nothing ever happened. The district seemed uninterested in or unwilling to engage in dialogue about the idea.

Boasberg views the situation differently. He told me during a phone call last night last night that shortly after receiving Stein's letter last April, he heard from KIPP that the organization did not want to open a new middle school, for which it had won approval, until 2011, because it wanted to focus on the launch of its first Denver high school, which opened last fall.

DPS won't begin until November the process of deciding where to place new schools opening in 2011, Boasberg said. So there was no reason to ponder the Manual-KIPP proposal before now. It was too far off in the future.

Just as the Cole-DSST proposal will come under review in the coming months, so will any proposal Manual and KIPP might put forward, Boasberg said. "I look forward in that process to talking to both Manual and KIPP about the proposal," he said. The Cole-DSST and Manual-KIPP proposals -- should the latter submit one -- will be treated equally, Boasberg said.

But the Manual community is now nervous about a more recent development. On Monday, the Manual School Leadership Team and School Advisory Council sent a letter, penned by a parent, to Boasberg and school board President Nate Easley, stating that the school has learned "of the District's intent to locate the P.S. 1 Charter High School in the Manual facility." You can read the letter here. It asks again that the district consider KIPP as a partner for Manual, and that the P.S. 1 decision be rescinded.

That chronically struggling school, one of Denver's first charters, is being closed by the district at the end of next school year.

This is exactly what Manual does not need -- a failed school, full of low-performing students, undergoing hospice care inside Manual's walls. Even if it is only for a year.

Boasberg said Manual's concern about P.S. 1 is premature. He said Manual is one of several locations "potentially under consideration," because it has plenty of space to accommodate P.S. 1. But he stressed no decision has been made. "There hasn't even been a recommendation," he said.

Well, that's not exactly true. An internal memo from Kristin Waters and Kelly Leid of the Office of School Reform and Innovation to senior central administrators Happy Haynes and Antwan Wilson, dated Feb. 19, says the following:

After the exploration of several facility options, we are recommending the relocation to excess space currently available at Manual High School... Other viable options explored would require displacement of current users along with related financial support...

The memo recommends bringing the issue to the school board for a vote this week. But the item is not on this week's board agenda, so the decision apparently has been pushed back.

In other words, this may be only an internal DPS recommendation, from one layer of the bureaucracy to another. But Manual parents and staff do, in fact, have cause for concern. And the talk of using Manual for P.S 1 seems to have gone farther than Boasberg told me it had.

Boasberg said he has talked to Stein about the possibility, "and I think it's fair to say there is not a lot of enthusiasm."

"Manual supports the mission of P.S. 1," says the letter from the leadership team and advisory council. "However, as a school that caters to struggling students with low achievement and high dropout rates, P.S. 1 represents where Manual has been-not where it is headed."

If Manual's nightmare scenario became reality -- an arranged marriage with P.S. 1 rather than a consensual marriage to KIPP -- it would demonstrate boneheaded decision-making on DPS' part.

When the school board made the abrupt but correct decision to close Manual, then-Superintendent Michael Bennet promised the community to reopen it as "a premier high school." A partnership with KIPP could help make that promise a reality.

A one-year shotgun marriage with P.S. 1 might not deal a fatal blow to that vision. But it sure wouldn't help. Even without that unwanted distraction, it will take time and careful planning to determine how -- and whether -- both a Cole-DSST and a Manual-KIPP might fit in the same neighborhood.

Feelings are still raw in Cole and Whittier over the closing of Manual three years ago. It wouldn't take much for people to start complaining, with some justification, that Manual has gotten the shaft. Again.

Don't let it happen, Mr. Boasberg.