Denver school officials will solidify the direction of the district’s neediest high school in the coming weeks when they introduce the next principal at Manual High School. But some parents and community members aren’t sure they’ll be part of the welcome wagon.

Manual parents and community members met with two finalists, Nickolas Dawkins and Robert Kelly Jr., Monday evening. The candidates will meet with Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg next week for a final interview.

Meanwhile, a community committee assembled to advise Denver Public Schools officials on how to move the school forward has issued its final report.

The committee, made up of Manual alumni, parents, staff, and community members, has endorsed a career and technical program where students can earn biomedical training and certificates.

Some committee members also stressed their hope, despite Manual’s low enrollment, the school will continue to offer a comprehensive education to students that includes music and the arts.

“We feel like the Manual of today is strong, is moving in a wonderful direction, has a lot of momentum,” said Karen Mortimer, a member of the committee and DPS parent. “It’s not a school that needs to be unplugged. It’s a school that needs to be supported in its continued excellence.”

Yet as the next chapter for Manual is coming into focus, some community members and parents are raising concerns about the principal candidates’ qualifications and the school’s new biomedical career track.

About the finalists

Dawkins is principal at Hamilton Middle School in Denver. Kelly is an assistant principal at Overland High School in Aurora.

Dawkins grew up in Denver, graduated from East High School, and later taught English at South High School.

In 2009, he was an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School as part of the University of Denver’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders.

He then spent two years as a principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College as part of the district’s leadership program, Learn to Lead.

Since 2012, he has been the principal at Hamilton Middle School, which has about 900 students.

According to Dawkins’ resume, he managed a $4.1 million budget, launched a program that gave every student a laptop, and raised the school’s performance rating to green, a status that indicates the school is meeting the district’s expectations.

Kelly is a graduate for the University Of Alaska-Anchorage. He began teaching physical education in Anchorage in 1995. He also coached a variety of sports teams including wrestling, track, football, and soccer.

According to his resume, he moved to Colorado in 2006 to become the athletic director and assistant principal at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County.

In 2007, Kelly moved to the Cherry Creek School District to become an assistant principal at Overland High School, which has more than 2,000 students. There he took a role in instruction and teacher evaluations. He has also been the school’s assessment coordinator. He developed an intervention program for at-risk students. And he launched two leadership programs for male students.

Both Hamilton and Overland are racially diverse schools. About half the students at both schools qualify for federally-subsidized lunches. Manual’s population is predominately black or Latino. Nearly three-fourths of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Neither Dawkins nor Kelly responded to requests for interviews.

Not afraid of the spotlight

A lot of hard work awaits Manual’s next leader. It is the city’s lowest performing high school.

Not only will the new principal need to drastically boost student achievement and roll out a new program intended to help students develop expertise in the medical field, he’ll also need to win over students, parents, faculty, district officials, and a fiercely protective group of alumni and community supporters.

At times, those constituencies haven’t seen eye-to-eye.

“We’re looking for someone who has the right skills to engage and engender buy in of community,” said Susana Cordova, Denver’s chief schools officer. “We’re looking for someone who is able to articulate and build on vision for the school and do that in collaboration with stakeholders. We’re looking for someone who is not afraid to be in the spotlight.”

Manual has been a hotbed of reform efforts since the mid-1990s. In 2006, the school was shut down for a year when Denver Public Schools attempted to reboot Manual, which sits in a historically black northeast portion of Denver. The reform efforts led by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, now the state’s senior U.S. senator, was subject of a New Yorker profile.

While test scores improved for a short time, a leadership transition in 2010 meant a slip in academic rigor and culture. In 2014, then-principal Brian Dale was fired after he overspent the school’s budget by more than $600,000 without improving test results. Don Roy, a Denver middle school principal was named as Dale’s successor and charged with steadying the school. Roy’s tenure will end at the conclusion of the school year.

DPS officials announced this fall they were searching for a new principal at Manual High School. The news came as the district abandoned a plan to merge Manual with nearby East High School.

Cordova said whomever the district chooses to lead Manual will be working closely with his direct supervisor to ensure the school’s culture and academic rigor — which reportedly have been improving under Roy — don’t backslide. The district, she said, has put an emphasis on coaching not just teachers, but principals as well.

Some in the Manual community are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming leadership transition.

“Manual has been screwed a lot — starting with those boundary lines — but I feel like the district is taking a little more ownership,” said Lainie Hodges, a Manual alumni who served on the Manual Thought Partner committee.

Processing the process

Not all members of the Manual committee are convinced DPS has turned over a new leaf when it comes to Manual. A vocal group of parents who share a strong bond with former Manual assistant principal Vernon Jones, whose contract was not renewed this fall, have been raising concerns about how DPS has positioned Manual for the future.

Parent Courtney Torres, a member of the community advisory group, said she left the committee because she felt the process was only for show.

“From my point of view, [my participation] wasn’t beneficial for me or my students,” Torres said.

She also took offense to DPS suggesting a program to track students into the medical careers and not college.

“I think the reason I chose Manual was because it was a college prep,” Torres said. “It’s oxymoronic to call Manual a college prep school and offer [career programs]. College prep is when you’re preparing students to think critically, to learn with books, to engage in conversation. But when you track kids into giving kids medical assistance and technician certificates — that’s the opposite of college prep.”

Both Mortimer and Cordova stressed that the biomedical track, which will be paid in part by a grant from the Kaiser Foundation, will be optional.

Parent Jason Janz said he is concerned that Monday’s parent meeting with the principal finalists appeared to be thrown together at the last minute with little notice to parents. He also expressed concern the candidates were not asked demanding questions.

“Both [candidates] are very likable individuals,” Janz said. “They’re passionate about education. But as a community, we only had 20 minutes to hear them talk. The questions were all scripted — I call them, ‘do you like children questions.'”

District officials did send out a letter announcing the forum. But the date was changed due to a scheduling conflict one of the candidates had. A district spokesman said three automated phone calls were placed alerting parents to the change in time. The district also posted notices on the school’s Facebook page.

Hodges, who helped organize the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, disagreed with some of Janz’s claims.

“Any rumor that hardball questions weren’t asked is just wrong,” she said.

Audience members were asked only to submit questions that both candidates could respond do. Participants were also able to ask both candidates individual questions afterward for about 45 minutes, she said.

Janz also said he is uneasy about the candidates’ qualifications: Neither has been a principal at a high school before.

“If you think every assistant principal is cut out to be a principal, you probably also think Sarah Palin or Joe Biden could run this country,” Janz said.

Cordova, DPS’s chief school officer, wouldn’t respond directly to those concerns, but said she had faith in a hiring process that included input and a review of applicants by multiple groups including Manual’s Collaborative School Committee, a formal body made up of parents, teachers, and community members.