Former Manual High School principal Nickolas Dawkins said in a letter to the school’s staff that he resigned after learning a few days ago that Denver Public Schools received complaints about a hostile work environment at the school.
“It was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators,” he wrote in the letter, which was posted on social media Saturday, a day after his resignation was made public. “I began to draft a resignation letter.”
Denver Public Schools responded to Dawkins’s letter with a statement that said, “In any situations where concerns are raised, the person about whom those concerns are raised has a full opportunity to respond to those concerns and present all relevant facts.”
It’s not clear from Dawkins’s letter what the hostile work environment complaints were about. Reached by phone, he said he couldn’t elaborate. In the letter, he described holding his staff accountable for an incident in which members of Manual’s leadership team allowed marijuana to be brought into the school for a science experiment while he was traveling for a training.
“This all came to a head when, two days ago, I learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment,” the letter says. “I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students was questioned.”
Dawkins wrote that the complaints were the most recent challenge in a year filled with them. Other challenges, he wrote, included having to bury “two beloved students,” supporting undocumented students during politically uncertain times, and helping the school community cope with the fear caused by a Thanksgiving Day shooting in Manual’s parking lot.
Dawkins also cited an intense public backlash, including being called racial slurs, after a football game at which Manual supporters say the opposing team displayed the Confederate flag. Officials from that school denied the reports, and the incident became the subject of prolonged media attention.
He wrote that he “shared the sentiment” of a student who asked him, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while?”
Dawkins said the all-encompassing nature of his work at Manual had taken a toll on his family and his personal life. He also cited a recent report on the difficulties encountered by black educators in Denver Public Schools.
“The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart,” he wrote. “When you add turnaround leadership and being a leader of color to that it can really become complex, difficult, and you can often end up feeling like you are in a no-win situation most of the time.”
Denver Public Schools said in its statement that the district supports its principals: “We appreciate the very hard work and challenges our school leaders face, particularly in today’s difficult political climate, and we are fully committed to supporting them.”
Here is the full text of Dawkins’s letter:
Why I Left Denver Public Schools
I never thought I would leave Manual High School this school year. I was so looking forward to graduation and graduating next year’s class of seniors who was the first class I came in with. This decision has been incredibly difficult for me and it is important to share why I resigned.
I looked into my wife’s eyes yesterday morning and I could see the toll that my service has had on my family. The job of a principal in our current climate is not for the faint of heart. When you add turnaround leadership and being a leader of color to that it can really become complex, difficult, and you can often end up feeling like you are in a no-win situation most of the time. The design of our current system makes it extremely difficult to navigate the politics, communications and varying stakeholder desires,especially when you add in the essential elements of equity and culturally responsive school leadership that puts students first. Through my career and at Manual I have stood tall in the face of so many challenges and always stood by my students.
This year’s challenges have proved to be some of the most difficult I have ever encountered. In the first months of the school year, we buried two beloved students and provided crisis teams for our students and community. We, like many other schools, were taken off-guard by the recent DPS SPF ratings as we started the school year. Our school was devastated by the results of the SPF as all the predictors we had up to that point showed us finally taking Manual to Green.
As we processed the fallout from this revelation, we encountered the well documented football game in which our students and community reported being hurt by racial slurs, and images of what they believed was a confederate flag. For weeks as this situation played out I was targeted by those that called me a nigger and vowed to bring harm to me. The repeal of the Dream Act, at play as well, rocked our school as DACA students feared and some students begin to report the deportation of family members. A gun soon found in our school would also heighten the tension and anxiety of our employees, students, parents, faculty and staff. Through all of this, our amazing teachers and staff remained committed to our students through their trauma and insecurities, overcoming the anxieties of day-to-day headlines. That commitment unwavering, Manual had the highest graduation rate in close to a decade.
When we finally had a well-deserved fall break, we learned of a brutal and vicious slaying that took place in our parking lot as we served up Thanksgiving dinner to our families. The tension and anxiety seemed unescapable. As winter break brought rejuvenation, we came back ready for recruiting for School Choice and preparing for our upcoming SAT/PSAT examinations. In our first week back in January, I traveled with a group of teachers to learn advance critical reading strategies to bring back to students in their classrooms. On my first day gone, I learned that members of my leadership team allowed a non-Manual employee and employee new to Manual to light tobacco and bring marijuana inside the school for a science experiment, without parent permission. I was dumbfounded as our school board policy clearly bars drugs on campus. This event was a turning point and I held my team accountable.
I remain disappointed in the action to approve a clear violation of school policy and the message it sent to our kids and community, especially in the light of the rough year we were having. I was emotional, I was sad, I was extremely disappointed, and embarrassed. One student asked me, “Principal Dawkins, can we not be in the news for a little while.” I shared her sentiments. I gave my best to move forward although I began to hear and see actions that were clearly contradictory to our values and aimed to hurt me. I understood the trauma from the year was not only informing my decisions, but the decisions and perspectives of those closest to me.
This all came to a head when two days ago, I learned that Denver Public Schools (DPS) did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment. I was heartbroken. In this instance, the accountability I had demanded prioritizing our students, was questioned. The next day it was clear that I would not be allowed to work directly at Manual nor discuss the allegations with investigators. I began to draft a resignation letter that was intended only for senior leadership, which was subsequently shared with the public.
One may ask, why not stay and fight these allegations? The answer for me again lies in what is best for my family’s health and what is to be gained. With over 90% staff and student approval on my recent Manual DPS Collaborate survey and with 16 years of exemplary service with similar or higher percentages of staff and student approval, DPS took action contrary to my record of service. It is with my deep belief in the DPS core values that I chose now to find another way to serve.
I stand now seeking nothing more but to get the time to heal from not only this year, but the past 16 years. Dr. Sharon Bailey’s recent report on the experience of Black educators in DPS captures years of struggle that I shared with many colleagues. I need to tend to my family and to my own health, as my passion for supporting students and families at Manual has now encompassed both my private and professional life. I have never really had the time to take care of my home, in looking after the home for our beautiful students and community at Manual.
The role of the Principal is currently one mired in concerns of student safety and mental health management, both for the students and the staff that serve them. Everyday fears of gun violence and school shootings are combined with the overall stories of trauma our society is currently involved in. It became clear to me that I would not be able to serve without the support of my leadership team. With an ever-increasing focus on what schools and school leaders are doing wrong through allegations, public attacks and high stakes testing connected to school closure, the priority of the students I so dearly love could be quickly lost. I refuse to let that happen to the students and families of Manual.
The students at Manual should know I will continue to love and support them in my new adventures and that the time we shared was a most profound and powerful experience. I shared my heart and love with you all and it was all genuine. I will still be here for you. As I cared for you I must care for my family as well. Don’t stop shining. Remember, Manual is where the light is.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.