Extreme School Makeover: Manual High

Homes aren't the only structures in need of extreme makeovers — sometimes schools need a face-lift, too. For one Denver high school, it's back to school and back to life.

Once a model of educational excellence and community, Manual High School fell on hard times.

Manual was the oldest school in the area, opening its doors in 1896, an institution deeply woven into the fabric of the community.

In the 1970s, court-ordered busing was instituted. White students from suburban Denver were bused in to attend Manual, which was predominately black and Latino at the time. It was a successful endeavor, as education worked and overall test scores were good.

Ten years ago, the busing stopped.

"It reverted to, I think, about half African-American, half Latino students, at that time, populated the school," said Rob Stein, Manual Class of 1977. "And at that point, the school began to take a little bit of a dip."

The students from more affluent communities stopped attending Manual, and the subsequent dip in test scores was drastic. In 2006, after several failed attempts to fix the problems, Manual High School was closed.

"I know the test scores were low, attendance was low, but to close it altogether devastated the kids and the community," said Cheryl Simmons, Class of 1968.

School Reborn

Manual had always planned to reopen, and it will, beginning with a freshman class of 175 students, with the help of Hands On Schools, a group that brings together parents, communities and corporations to reestablish schools as the focal point of the community.

Manual is one of 100 schools set to be renovated by Hands on Schools nationwide over a two-year period, a renovation the community is more than happy to help with.

Stein recently took a pay cut and left a posh private school in Denver to return to Manual, as principal.

"In terms of the academic day, we're really starting over. And what we're doing is looking at schools around the country, some of them right here in Denver, who are outperforming expectations with low income students," Stein said.

"And we've been borrowing from practices that are proven effective elsewhere, and we're implementing them here."

Simmons' son Michael will represent the fourth generation in their family at Manual.

"This will not fail. … Parents need to be a part of this school, the community needs to be a part of this school, and I'm willing to go the distance because I've given my son to this school, I'm betting his future on the success of this school," Simmons said.

Her son is equally as eager to attend her alma mater.

"My hopes and my dreams coming to Manual are to be a professional athlete, but if I do not achieve that, then this school will hopefully give me the best education I can get to be whatever I want to be," Michael said.

As Manual High School is given a new beginning, the community is mindful of the past, but it looks to the future, full of promise and hope.

There is a collective belief that Manual's greatest days lie ahead.

The miracle of Manual High is just one of Hands On Schools success stories. The organization has reinvigorated 22 schools and more than 14,000 students around the country.

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