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Why We Lose Leaders

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post honoring Dan Lutz, the visionary who founded the Denver Center for International Studies and who announced his retirement as the 2009-10 school year drew to a close.

Today I want to pay homage to another sterling educator, who hasn't been on the scene nearly as long as Lutz, but whose departure from Denver Public Schools this spring should not pass unnoticed.

I am talking about Rob Stein, who is leaving the helm of Manual High School after three years. Stein and I have been friends for a decade, so my judgment may not be objective. But I spent a lot of time at Manual during his first year there (I had thoughts of writing a book about it) and some time there last year as well. So I've seen a fair amount up close.

I can't say that Manual under Stein's leadership has become a break-the-mold school that will blaze a new trail for urban educators. Stein, in my view, would be capable of starting and operating such a school. But the hard truth of Manual is that the deck was stacked from the start. Politics at various levels are largely to blame.

While I still worked at The Piton Foundation, I served on the Manual Community Council, which was charged with coming up with a blueprint for the new school after the school board made an abrupt decision to close the old Manual in 2006.

The community council was a large, unwieldy group. It consisted of representatives from a wide variety of constituencies, whose interests frequently were divergent. Knocking the sharp edges off people's positions resulted in a compromise document that was watered down and filled with vague generalities and platitudes. It basically gave the district latitude to do what it wanted with the new Manual, within a few constraints. I suspect that was then-Superintendent Michael Bennet's goal from the start.

Bennet, working furiously on damage control after northeast Denver power brokers erupted in outrage over the school's closure, promised that Manual would reopen after a year's hiatus. He pledged that its replacement would be a "premier" high school.

But then, thanks to bureaucratic intransigence, DPS did just about everything possible to give the school a rocky start. Hiring Stein away from Graland Country Day, one of Denver's top private schools, was a brilliant move. Hiring him so late in the game -- in the spring of 2007 to open the school late that summer -- was a major blunder from which the school long struggled to recover.

During the community council process Rich Harrison (now principal of the Denver School of Science and Technology middle school) and I repeatedly urged the council to recommend delaying the school's opening by another year. That would give Stein time to build his team, and for the team to engage in careful, unhurried planning.

Our pleas were shunted aside.

Cities across the country have learned the hard way that to turn around a school requires time and careful planning. Giving a principal a few months to hire a staff and open a school is a recipe for failure, one that has been followed with disastrous results time and again from coast to coast.

To the best of my recollection, Stein accepted the job in March 2007. But he was contractually bound to Graland through that school year, meaning he could not dedicate himself full-time to Manual until late spring.

Thanks to Stein's reputation and torrents of national publicity showered on Manual, Stein managed to assemble a strong teaching staff, many from out of state, even so late in the game.

But Stein's team did not have time to do the kind of careful preparation required to get a school off to a strong start. Even though Manual opened with only ninth-graders, a lot of basic systems, notably around culture and discipline, weren't in place on the first day of school.

Still, the school immediately began outperforming other Title I high schools in Denver. Its performance has not been stellar, but it has looked pretty good in an admittedly weak field.

Late in Manual's first year, the neighboring Bruce Randolph School asked for and received autonomy from union and district rules and regulations. This was, among other things, a clever political maneuver; a successful attempt by Bennet and his team to outflank the union.

Manual jumped on the bandwagon almost immediately and won similar freedoms. Then, when the state passed the innovation schools law in the spring of 2009, codifyng the districts autonomy efforts, Manual sought and achieved that state designation as well.

One major difference between Randolph and Manual was that Randolph perceived its biggest roadblocks as coming from the collective bargaining agreement. Stein and his staff felt more limited by school district red tape than anything in the union contract.

As time passed, and the superintendency was transferred from Bennet to Tom Boasberg, Manual and Stein continued to feel stymied by the district's reluctance to fee up money that would have granted the school freedom from district services and requirements. Much of the money Stein felt should flow directly to an autonomous school never showed up. Other autonomous school principals have voiced similar complaints.

For specific examples, read this Education News Colorado interview with Stein from earlier this year.

Stein's willingness to speak out when he sees something he thinks is wrong has not endeared him to district leadership. In my view, he has been uncharacteristically diplomatic when discussing his reasons for leaving Manual.

Still, he's now viewed as something of a pariah at 900 Grant Street. Disloyal. Not a team player. People say things like he has "gone off the reservation."

Yes, Stein can be prickly at times. He has been careful in his private pronouncements about his departure but more direct behind closed doors. This has angered some people high up in the district chain of command.

Stein did not leave Manual to walk into another job. He hasn't figured out his next career move. But you can bet it won't involve DPS.

There is a basic lesson in this. If big bureaucracies like DPS can't listen to and learn from friendly critics, especially those on the inside, then they are doomed to wallow forever in mediocrity. And good people will keep leaving.