Manual High principal resigns along with chair of booster group

“I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me.”

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Nickolas Dawkins. (Courtesy photo)

Nickolas Dawkins. (Courtesy photo)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

The principal of Manual High School, Nickolas Dawkins, has resigned after helming the northeast Denver school for two and a half years.

Numerous people affiliated with the school community – including the Friends of Manual High School booster group – posted about the surprising development on social media Friday afternoon. A district spokesperson confirmed the resignation.

A letter to the school community from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova highlighted Dawkins’ accomplishments: Manual, which was once shuttered for low-performance, saw its school rating improve during Dawkins’s tenure, more than 90 percent of students say they’re satisfied with their experience, and a majority of families say they would recommend the school. It did not offer any reason for the resignation.

The district provided a copy of Dawkins’s resignation letter. In it, he wrote, “I knew going to lead at Manual could break me because everyone warned me.”

But Dawkins wrote that he’s proud of his time at Manual. “DPS giving me the chance to go home and make some things right by the students there is a gift I will always be thankful for,” he wrote.

The board chair of Friends of Manual High School, Lainie Hodges, also resigned, according to a post Friday afternoon on the group’s public Facebook page.

“This role and work has been an honor and a privilege for me and words cannot express how grateful I am to Nick Dawkins for all that he has given,” said the post, signed by Hodges. “It was a pleasure to work alongside him and I will forever treasure what Manual is and has been to us.”

Dawkins grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from nearby East High School. He once said a teacher who became like a godmother to him inspired him to go into education. Dawkins taught English at Denver’s South High School before becoming a school leader. He was principal of Hamilton Middle School prior to taking the job at Manual.

“Before I came to Manual I was told by a leader, ‘You are going to ruin your career,’” Dawkins wrote in his resignation letter. “‘You are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The school and kids down there are dying on the vine. There is a reason no one wants to lead there. It is highly likely you will fail.’

“After sleeping on it, I returned the next day with the statement, ‘I don’t think going back to my community and telling 300 kids we love them and haven’t forgot about them is a failure. And if that is failure and I ruin my career, I guess I will have to get another career. They deserve it,’” Dawkins wrote.

Manual serves just over 300 students this year. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent are students of color.

The school has experienced significant leadership turnover in the past decade, as well as repeated overhauls of its academic program. In 2006, former superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator, made the controversial decision to close the storied but struggling school, which sparked sharp criticism and backlash from the community.

The district promised to remake Manual into one of the city’s premier high schools. But by 2014, it was once again the lowest-performing high school in Denver as judged by state test scores.

This year, Manual is rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color coded scale. Just shy of 19 percent of ninth graders met expectations on state literacy tests last year.

Dawkins said his vision for Manual was to change the narrative “from a school that’s been having hard times to a school that’s on an upward trajectory and where kids can be found being wildly successful.” Just two weeks ago, Dawkins hosted an event with Mayor Michael Hancock, a high-profile alum, highlighting “Manual’s Med School,” which offers advanced classes intended to help students earn college credits and go on to careers in the medical field.

Community organizer and Manual alum Candi CdeBaca said Dawkins represented what students wanted in a leader in the aftermath of the tumultuous closure and reopening.

“So many principals and teachers and administrators in schools like Manual are trying to teach kids how to leave their community and disconnect from their community, and he was trying to teach kids to be part of their community and be change agents in their community,” she said. “He knew that everything that we needed is right here in our backyard.”

Denver Public Schools is expected early next week to announce the interim principal, spokesman Will Jones said. The district will also announce the details of the process to select a permanent replacement, he said.

Read Dawkins’s full resignation letter below, as well as the letter from Boasberg and Cordova.

Bureau chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.