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Three schools, one building, many reforms

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Despite support from an enthusiastic principal and the Gates Foundation, Manual's transition to three schools has been rocky. It will be several years before anyone can truly know if it's been a success. But at a time when the small-schools movement is gaining momentum and the federal government has earmarked $125 million to support "small learning communities," Manual is being closely watched to see if a big urban school – especially one with rock-bottom test scores and challenging demographics – can successfully transform itself.

"The good news is that the schools weathered the [structural] changes," says Van Schoales, who has served as a consultant for Manual and is executive director of the Colorado Small Schools Initiative. "Now the schools are in a position to do what ultimately is the hardest work – rethinking the ways in which staff and students interact."

"Small schools" of the type Mr. Schoales advocates have been linked to significant improvements, including reduced school violence, better grades, and increased graduation and college-attendance rates – but they're not just about reducing the number of students. Manual may have taken the biggest leap when it started its separation into three schools last year, but the more substantive changes – how teachers teach, how students' needs are met, how curriculums are designed – are just beginning.

"It's no longer courses and credit – it's the ability to really understand proficiency," explains Nancy Sutton, the principal who ushered Manual through the reforms until she left this year to join the Colorado Small Schools Initiative. "It's a slower environment. It's more deliberate. It's less teacher centered.... That's something that some members of the faculty got immediately – but others didn't."

Ms. Sutton came to the school in 1996, a year before Denver's citywide busing program ended.

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