STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. American high schools may try different ways to improve, but one American principal is not thrilled about his choices.
Mr. ROB STEIN (Principal, Manual High School): To me the metaphor for high schools in the United States is vending machines. You know, you've got lots of poor quality choices and you just pull whatever lever you want. And that's just a terrible model for an educational system.
INSKEEP: Rob Stein is the principal of one school that's been trying to come up with choices that are not in the vending machine. Over the past school year we've profiled a number of innovative schools across the country. And we're going to finish at Manual High. It's a Denver school that had so many problems that authorities decided to start over. NPR's Larry Abramson has been our guide throughout this series. And Larry, what's changed at this one high school in Denver?
LARRY ABRAMSON: Well, Manual High School was a once great high school in the 1980s. People have very fond memories of the great football team they had, the great achievement they had. And then all of a sudden, because court-ordered busing turned it into an all-minority school, achievement dropped, nobody was going to the school anymore, attendance was dropping.
INSKEEP: You had a lot of poor kids concentrated in one place.
ABRAMSON: Exactly. And so the school just became suddenly a zone of underachievement. And they had to close the place. But listen to what it sounds like now.
Ms. LINCOLN SMITH (Student, Manual High School): And to make your equation what you do is you take your start value, which would be in this case 129, and then you input your constant multiplier, which you got from dividing...
ABRAMSON: So that's Lincoln Smith. She's a freshman at Manual. And she's the beneficiary of an extreme solution to troubled schools. They just reopened Manual with only a freshman class.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, it's different, because the teachers, they actually pay attention to what you have to say and they listen to all your problems and they'll help you with all your work. And, like, it's easier here too because it's all freshman and you don't have all the distractions of, like, all the older kids.
INSKEEP: Larry Abramson, when you say that they closed and reopened the school, you mean the school was shuttered for an entire year and then they...
ABRAMSON: For an entire year.
INSKEEP: ...brought back new kids, new teachers, new principal, just the same building?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, it's remarkable. The feeling is that school culture is so strong you can't just bring in a new principal. You can't just bring in new teachers. They actually had to start over from the ground up, of course with the same building, but everything else in the school was changed.
INSKEEP: And what did local families have to say about this?
ABRAMSON: Well, they just howled. I mean, they said this is a school that's been part of our community for decades. You cannot close it down. There were accusations of racism, because it was a largely minority school. But now that the school has reopened with all of this new energy, there's really a lot of optimism in the neighborhood and the feeling that this is genuinely a fresh start, that it's not an effort to close the school permanently, but that it really was an effort to start over again.
INSKEEP: Did you find teachers excited to grab that opportunity?
ABRAMSON: Extremely excited. In fact, I think for teachers there's nothing more exciting than being able to start over and build a school on your own without having somebody just hand it to you.
One of the teachers I met was Nicole Frazier.
Ms. NICOLE FRAZIER (Teacher, Manual High School): We had a design team. We all sat around the table at Rob's house and we hashed through things topic after topic. You know, with a vision in mind, but what's the research say? What schools are making it work? What are they doing? How can we incorporate that here?
INSKEEP: Rob's house, that must be the house of the principal we met earlier.
ABRAMSON: Exactly, right. They were sitting around like a bunch of executives at an Internet startup, saying: what do we want to do to make our ideal company or ideal school? And other teachers said the very same thing.
There's a teacher named Lizzy Krueger, who moved from an affluent district in Wisconsin to be part of this experiment. And even though this place had gotten a lot of bad press, she decided to move here.
Ms. LIZZY KRUEGER (Teacher, Manual High School): Well, everybody's first reaction is, oh, and so it'll be like these introductions to new people, like, oh, I'm Lizzy. You know, what do you do? I work at Manual. And everybody's eyebrows kind of go up. And they're all like: you do? And I'm like, yeah. How's it going? It's going great.
INSKEEP: OK. She says it's going great. You watched her class. How's it going?
ABRAMSON: It's really fun. You know, she has a great style. This teacher was frequently coaxing kids to behave better rather than yelling at them for behaving badly. So when somebody raised their hand, she said thank you for raising your hand. That little thing makes a big difference in the feel and the environment of a classroom.
INSKEEP: And it was a positive enough environment, there was enough discipline in the classroom without her being iron-fisted about it that that wasn't a problem?
ABRAMSON: Well, more or less. I mean, this is an urban high school, so there's still a lot of energy. There's a lot of screaming in the halls. But most of the kids I met really were directed towards this goal of making the school a success. And there's a tremendous amount of loyalty to the school that still remains from the old days, Steve, when it was known as this powerhouse. Kids want to be part of the new Manual High School.
This is a kid I met named Saul Vasquez.
Mr. SAUL VASQUEZ (Student, Manual High School): My sister is actually an alumni from Manual, so I said I want to be a Thunderbolt too. So I decided to come here.
INSKEEP: So is this experiment, closing the school, starting all over again - we could crudely call it the New Orleans method, because some people said this is what might help the New Orleans schools after the flood there. Is it working?
ABRAMSON: Well, more research is necessary, as they say in the science journalism. But I think the early indications are that there have been gains in achievement, attendance is up. They won't really have the kind of scores they need to show gains in achievement until next year. And that's frustrating, you know. If you're doing one of these experiments you can't just test the kids from one week to the next. You have to wait months, maybe years, to find out whether you're doing the right thing. But so far there are a lot of positive signs.
INSKEEP: Larry Abramson, we've been following along with you for months as you've gone to one innovative school after another. We've heard schools that everything gets taught outside, even in winter. We've heard about a school with no real classes, no real classrooms. We've heard about a ski school. Do these different kinds of approaches have anything in common?
ABRAMSON: There's a real hunger for change, especially for kids who either are at risk of failing in school, just dropping out, or for kids who really have sort of a more expansive curiosity. They want to do something other than what's offered in traditional high schools. They really want some kind of choice. And I think even at traditional high schools you're hearing a response to this need for choice.
INSKEEP: And are there lessons that traditional high schools can apply then?
ABRAMSON: Yes. I think there are. One is just the size issue, that having 2,000 kids in one place may be a recipe for failure for many, many kids. And even though it works for some of the kids there, it means that hundreds of those 2,000 kids are going to fail. And that's not good enough. So maybe you have to break things down into smaller pieces.
INSKEEP: NPR's Larry Abramson, thanks for the series.
ABRAMSON: All right. Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can hear Larry's earlier profiles of innovative schools at npr.org.