Interim Manual High principal named as district begins search for permanent leader

Renard Simmons, principal of the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, has been named interim principal.

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Manual High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; high school; denverite; kevinjbeaty;

Manual High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

Renard Simmons, principal of the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, has been named interim principal of Manual High School following the unexpected resignation of Manual’s leader late last week.

DC21, as it’s called, is a nearby public school serving middle and high school students. Simmons will split his time between DC21 and Manual, school district spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said.

Simmons is not interested in becoming the permanent leader of Manual, Mitchell said. The district will conduct a search for a new principal, a process Mitchell said the district expects will take about six weeks. Meanwhile, students staged a sit-in Monday to ask for recently resigned principal Nickolas Dawkins to return.

Dawkins said in a letter to Manual’s staff that he resigned Friday after learning the district had received complaints of a hostile working environment at the school.

Manual has experienced significant leadership turnover in the past decade, as well as repeated overhauls of its academic program, including a shuttering and reopening with the promise to make it into one of the city’s premier high schools. This year, Manual was rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color coded scale.

The school serves just over 300 students, 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent of whom are students of color.

Senior Jabari Lottie said he was shocked and “extremely distraught” to learn Dawkins had resigned. The 18-year-old said the former principal, who grew up in the northeast Denver neighborhood surrounding Manual, had raised academic expectations at the school while at the same time giving students a voice in the changes. Manual recently became an “early college,” which means students can stay for additional years to take college classes for free.

Lottie said he hopes the next principal is as compassionate as Dawkins was.

“We deserve to be treated as students but also as human beings,” Lottie said. “He did really well with that. He would let us know the human qualities he was feeling. He would talk to us and give us personal reflections from his life. That connectivity really made him a good principal.”

Simmons also grew up in the neighborhood and “attended classes at Manual, his father’s alma mater, before graduating from East High School,” according to a letter from district officials to Manual families. In his time as principal of DC21, the school’s rating has improved. It’s now “green,” the district’s second-highest rating. On social media, community activist Brother Jeff Fard called Simmons an excellent leader.

Simmons knows the students at Manual and the students know him, Mitchell said. After hearing Dawkins had resigned on Friday, Simmons went to Manual to help support the students, she said. He was back again Monday, visiting classrooms.

“I am here to serve, I am here to help,” Simmons told students, according to the letter to families. “I know the importance of education and that’s why we’re here. We’re going to rally around each other.”

Community member Lainie Hodges, who graduated from Manual in 1997, said the alumni community was devastated by Dawkins’s resignation and confused by what led to it. After Dawkins announced his decision, Hodges resigned as chair of the Friends of Manual High School booster group, a move she said was in part “to make a statement.”

“I appreciate so much the way he was able to lead in a way that encouraged everyone to step into their greatness,” Hodges said, adding that Dawkins’s legacy will be that he taught “kids and staff and faculty what they already had within themselves, that they weren’t lacking anything, that they needed to allow their own gifts, abilities, talent, and light to shine.”

She said the allegation of a hostile work environment is “not what I experienced in that building.” Community volunteers would comment that the atmosphere at Manual fed their souls, she said.

“If there was something else going on, it was shielded from everyone else,” Hodges said.

Dawkins has said he doesn’t know the details of the complaints. His letter notes that Manual students and staff experienced several traumatic events this school year, including the deaths of two students, a Thanksgiving Day shooting in the parking lot, and a high-profile dispute over whether the opposing team at a September football game displayed a Confederate flag.

In his letter, Dawkins called an incident in which a Manual employee brought marijuana into the building for a science experiment a “turning point” and said he held his staff accountable.

“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,” Dawkins said in the letter, which was posted on social media Saturday. “I understood the trauma from the year was not only informing my decisions, but the decisions and perspectives of those closest to me.”

He said he was “heartbroken” when he learned last week that the district “did not want me to be physically present at Manual due to complaints they had received regarding a hostile work environment.” He said he began to draft his resignation, which was made public Friday.

School board member Jennifer Bacon said she was at Manual Monday morning to welcome and support students. Bacon, whose northeast Denver school board district includes Manual, watched as a group staged a sit-in to demand Dawkins come back.

“In all candor, this school represents a lot of what DPS needs to come to terms with,” Bacon said. She referred to several factors, from the school’s small size and the impact that has on its budget to how the district helps students and educators deal with trauma.

“I really personally want to commit to wrapping our arms around the school and being honest about how we got here and holding ourselves accountable to that,” she said. “It’s enough already.”

Bacon called for “a true study” of what happened and what the district could have done better, “even if this did come down to relationships or leadership style or strife within the ranks.” On social media, members of the school community have discussed disagreements among top administrators at the school.

Bacon emphasized that the community must play an integral role in selecting the next leader.

“This has to be the most transparent principal hiring process we’ve ever done,” she said

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