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Three schools, one building, many reforms

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Back then, Manual was a lauded school, held up as a model of diversity and high achievement. Its graduates went on to the country's top colleges, and its test scores were among the best in Denver. But the only neighborhood students to attend came from a two-block radius around the school, and they were generally neglected: The 1994 graduation included just nine of the nearly 150 African-American boys who had entered as freshmen four years earlier.

When busing ended, Manual went overnight from a diverse, high-achieving school to one where attendance was low and dropout and mobility rates were high. About 95 percent of the students are minorities, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Just before busing ended, Manual's previous principal announced his retirement, and the faculty went on a nationwide search for a new one.

Enter Sutton, who didn't want just superficial change. She was an adherent of the Coalition of Essential Schools philosophy of personalization, depth over breadth, and small learning communities. She'd turned around a high school in Indianapolis, and she believed that as an essential school, Manual had a chance.

"She wanted to destabilize everybody," remembers Santo Nicotera, Manual's director of reform until he left in June to consult on other small-schools efforts. "And that's what she did."

Mr. Nicotera, for one, believes that such "destabilization" – starting fresh – was necessary. He remembers in particular Sutton's first meeting with the faculty, when she announced that Manual would indeed become a neighborhood school, not a magnet school as many teachers were hoping. "She said, 'If you can't see yourself teaching Latino and black kids from this neighborhood, there's the door.' And then she walked out." Twenty-five of the school's 70 teachers left that summer.

Those who stayed had to adjust to a new four-period day, wholesale curriculum change, more communal planning and critiques of teachers, and a restructured ninth grade that was divided into four teams. And that was just the first year.

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