When Democratic presidential hopeful and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris steps into Manual High School for her scheduled campaign stop on Friday, she will be stepping into a school with a history emblematic of the city’s struggles with racial equity.
The school, which has long served the city’s minority communities, counts among its alumni two Denver mayors, a legendary Chicano activist and prominent journalists. But it has also faced closure repeatedly and struggled to meet academic performance benchmarks.
Harris drew national attention for sharing her busing experience during a debate exchange with frontrunner Joe Biden last month. Biden had opposed busing efforts, while Harris participated in them as a student. The exchange helped catapult her to top-tier status and ignite a national conversation about the history of busing.
Jeff Fard, whose Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center and live Facebook shows have positioned him as a leader in Denver’s black community, said Manual’s history makes Harris’ visit resonant. Manual was one of the Denver high schools shaped by the city’s mandatory busing between 1974 and 1995, Chalkbeat reported.
“Manual is a bastion of black excellence,” Fard said. “The school that she’s stepping in has been dismantled, it has been experimented on … it has had people stand on that stage and say one thing and do another.”
The district voted to close the school in 2006. The district initially considered shutting the school down through a gradual phaseout. But they changed course, with a plan to close it at once and reopen it after pouring in sufficient resources to make sure the school could make a successful comeback.
When it reopened in 2007, it became, as Chalkbeat put it in 2014, the “centerpiece of Denver Public School’s reform efforts.” Administrators promised a fresh start for the famous school. Instead, it became an emblem of struggles and traumas that result from the district’s practice of shutting down and overhauling low-performing schools. By 2013, it ranked as one of the district’s lowest-performing schools and school leadership cycled through rapidly, leaving the school adrift.
Today, the Manual building houses a high school and a middle school. And it continues facing challenges: Manual High School Principal Joe Glover said that Manual’s test scores need to improve this fall. If they don’t, the state could potentially face state intervention based on DPS standards.
And Fard still sees the displacement of minorities communities reflected in the area’s schools. He notes McAuliffe Manual Middle School and McAuliffe International School — on opposite sides of Colorado Boulevard — have a drastically different number of black and brown students and white students.
Is the school’s history one of the reasons Harris choose to school as the site of her visit? We don’t know; her campaign did not respond to questions for comment this week. Denver Public Schools also said the district initially suggested using East High School, but the parking lot was not available
There’s another connection to her visit to the school — Sen. Michael Bennet.
The fellow presidential hopeful made the decision to shutter Manual High School in 2006 during his tenure as Denver superintendent.
But observers say Harris is unlikely to draw a connection between the school and her competitor when she visits this week. Harris, who is polling among the top five in several polls, has little to gain by bringing up his name on his home turf, experts said.
“I don’t think the odds are great to be honest,” said ProgressNow Colorado Executive Director Ian Silverii. “If I’m her or her people, and she has lots of smart people around her, I wouldn’t mention a single other candidate, especially considering most of the people in that room likely voted for Bennet at one point or another.”
Coincidently, Bennet did take a shot at Harris during a TV appearance on Monday, the same day Harris unveiled a Medicare for all plan. Bennet, who supports a public option plan, criticized Harris’ plan during an interview with MSNBC.
“Since we passed the Affordable Care Act, I’ve led the fight on a public option,” Bennet said. “That continues to be my position. I’m not changing it two days before the debate. And the reason that is my position is I think that’s the fastest way to get to universal health care coverage in this country.”
Harris and Bennet are scheduled to appear on stage on Wednesday during the second night of debates (along with Biden).
Silverii called Harris “an extremely compelling candidate.”
“She’ll generate a lot of fans here,” Silverii said.
She already has fans here, like local business owner Wanda James, who was the first black woman to open a dispensary in Colorado. She’s not affiliated with Harris’ campaign, but she said she’s as excited now as she was during President Barack Obama’s first run in 2008, when she served on his national finance committee.
James said it’s “historic” to have so many women not only running for higher office, but being among the frontrunners. She plans on drumming up support and money for Harris in Colorado.
“For me that’s epic,” James said, adding, “That we actually have a black woman within a shot of becoming president is really amazing. And we are happy to help.”
Fard is looking forward to hearing more details on addressing issues around inequity and schools closures, which are conversations black parents in Denver have been engaged in for some time. He doesn’t want to hear soundbites, and he suspects the people attending Friday’s event won’t want to either.
He thinks Harris will be greeted by people who “are serious and they take education and educational policies” seriously.
The visit this week is likely a sign of Colorado’s importance in the Democratic primary next year, Silverii said. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another frontrunner, visited Aurora in April.
“We’re definitely on the map. We just had a progressive wave election in 2018,” Silverii said, adding Colorado could become a “progressive anchor state” in this part of the country. “Any candidate who wants to win the primary has to put Colorado as part of their plan to win the nomination.”
Similarly, Fard said Colorado is a “perfect testing ground” for Harris and other candidates. It will give them a chance to address both unaffiliated voters — who outnumber Democrats and Republicans in Colorado — and progressives.
Silverii predicted other presidential heavyweights like Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who visited Boulder last year to stump for Gov. Jared Polis, will be stopping in Colorado in the coming months.