Kate Boo on School Reform in Denver

January 17, 2007

Kate Boo has a terrific article in the Jan. 15 New Yorker on the efforts of Michael Bennet to reform Manual High in Denver. (Full disclosures: Michael Bennet was in law school with me, and I have known Kate Boo since she was a reporter for the Washington Post many years ago.) Manual has received much press because it is one of the early Gates Foundation initiatives that did not work well. There is tons here of interest, but I thought the most novel insight was Bennet’s efforts to approach school drop-outs the way candidates treat voters. Faced with a potential drop-out crisis, Bennet and his team went door to door. Their aim: meet with students and families and help them find their way back to traditional or alternative schools. As Boo writes, Bennet was engaged in a “systematic pursuit of the sort of student who lowered aggregate test scores and teacher morale.” This is revolutionary stuff–a school superintendent trying to find the kids who schools often avoid!

As Boo puts it,

the fight to reclaim the former Manual students had no precedent in the age of No Child Left Behind. Out of panic, and of motivations that involved personal vanity as well as social justice, a safety net was being strung under a school system’s hardest cases–one involving parents, mentors, fast-food restaurant managers, United Airlines executives and city-council members who knocked on doors, an engrossed media, nonprofit organizations, and student leaders like Julissa Torrez. Meanwhile, Bennet had persuaded foundations to donate staff and funds to keep the tracking effort going for three years, after which the effort’s impact would be studied for application in other Denver schools, and in other cities, too. The notion of high expectations for poor children had been converted from the rhetorical to the specific and pragmatic, and a rescue effort that once seemed a sinkhole of time and effort began to look like a prototype.

Let’s keep watching whether this works.

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