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Three schools, one building, many reforms

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Five years after shifting from a high-performing magnet school to a neighborhood school in one of Denver's poorest areas, Manual High School has ceased to exist.

It hasn't been torn down, or even taken over by the state and reconstituted as a charter school – an ever-looming threat for failing Colorado schools.

It simply split up.

At first glance, not much has changed. More than a thousand students, sporting tongue piercings, headphones, or the latest hairdos, pour through the doors of Manual's sprawling brick building each morning. The powerhouse basketball team has remained together, and all the students still go to the same blue and red cafeteria at lunchtime. They are just now starting to identify themselves as students of Millennium Quest, Leadership, or Arts and Cultural Studies high schools, instead of simply Manual.

But below the surface, three distinct schools – not the more common schools-within-schools – are operating. The faculty and administration at each have just 350 or so students to get to know, and each school has a focus area: science and math, business and government, language and arts.

The breakup is only the most visible of the reforms. Placed at the very bottom of the list when Colorado ranked its high schools by test scores for the first time last year, Manual has been fighting to change its image and its performance level. In the process, it has become a crucible for nearly every major education reform in the country, including block scheduling, school-wide advisory groups, and merit pay. Sophomores now complete "rites of passage" – public demonstrations of learning – to advance, and seniors give similar exhibitions to graduate. Turbulent changes for a school, all at the same time that Colorado is implementing its own high-stakes testing and standards-based reforms.

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