Students of Denver’s Manual High saw their school close in 2006. Now, they want their diplomas

The feeling still hits Brandi Perez, nearly two decades after Manual High School temporarily closed in 2006, of what it was like to lose her school, her friends, her community and, in some measure, herself.

She was just a sophomore when Denver Public Schools officials’ shuttered the school, forcing more than 500 students to find a new place to learn. But she remembers how her school became notorious for its low test scores and declining enrollment. And she remembers the news articles — The New Yorker called Perez and peers “a symbol of failed reform” — questioning whether the education of the mostly poor students of color could be saved.

When Perez was forced to transfer to her new school, Denver’s South High School, the perception of Manual High students being failures followed her. Staff questioned Perez, a former athlete and honor roll student, whether she had earned her grades or if teachers at Manual High had made them up.

“Those are really formative years of your life and you’re trying to forge your path and who you are,” said Perez, who ultimately graduated from Adams City High School in 2008. “That really created this almost loss of self…I wasn’t looked at as capable any longer.”

Now at 32, Perez looks back at her high school years with a more critical eye — “Weren’t we (the ones) failed by the system?” — and is among those pushing the district to give Manual High diplomas to students affected by the 2006 closure.

It’s not just a piece of paper, Perez said, it’s about holding the district accountable for the decision to close the school.

“We were children being told they are closing our school,” she said. “I want people to know we were more than what was said about us.”

An effort is underway, still in the early stages, to distribute diplomas to hundreds of former students. The district is working with Tay Anderson, vice president of the district’s Board of Education and a 2017 Manual High graduate, to find students who were affected by the closure, said DPS spokesman Will Jones.

The goal, according to Anderson, is to give Manual High diplomas to any student who attended the school when it closed even if the displaced students graduated at another school. And for people who did not complete high school, Anderson wants the district to give them a certificate acknowledging the closure and let them know of the opportunities available for them to complete their education.

“They had their education unjustly interrupted due to politics,” he said, adding, “They should have been Manual graduates in the first place.”

The closing of Manual High School

The years-long decline of Manual High that led to the closure was slow.

The school, located in the Whittier neighborhood, opened more than a century ago as Manual Training High School with a focus on trades, such as wood and machine shop.

It got swept up in the efforts to desegregate public schools in the mid-1970s and when court-mandated busing ended in 1996, the school board redrew the school’s boundary lines to include many lower-income neighborhoods. By then, 86% of Manual High’s students were minorities.

Private money flowed into the school, which by 2006 became a model for urban school reform, but teachers were unhappy, principals left at a high rate and educational experiments aimed at reviving the institution failed.

“It was about the leadership, the adults. We could never get our act together,” Mary Lewis, a former principal, told The Denver Post in 2006. “It wasn’t about the kids.”

Achievement at the school declined by the late 90s and Manual High ranked at the bottom of all state high schools on the 2000 Colorado Student Assessment Program tests. The high school also lost students at an alarming rate as more than 300 students left within four years before the closure.

Still, the school board’s vote to close the school was abrupt and surprised the community.

The initial plan was to consolidate Manual High, which at the time consisted of three small schools, into one single institution and stop accepting new freshmen students while the district designed a new school, reported Chalkbeat Colorado.

But then, in February of 2006, Denver’s school board voted to shut down the school all at once and reopen it a year later with only freshmen with a plan to add a grade each year until all four high school grades were represented.

  • Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post

    Oshanette Lewis, center, Sophomore, 16, and Brandi Perez, left, Sophomore,16, chant as they join their Manual High classmates in marching down Grant St to the Denver Public Schools building on Feb. 17, 2006. Approximately 200 students from Manual High School Friday staged a protest outside the Denver Public Schools building at 9th and Grant. The students do not want to see their school closed.

  • Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post

    Francisco Martinez, Junior, 16, hugs Perla Ramires, Junior, 16, as they listen to a school official outside the Denver Public School building in on Feb. 17, 2006. Approximately 200 students from Manual High School Friday staged a protest outside the Denver Public School building at 9th and Grant. The students do not want to see their school closed.

  • RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Manual High School student, Terrell Mitchell, takes an early morning bus ride, Wednesday, March 15, 2006, in Denver. Mitchell was accompanied by DPS board member Theresa Pena and local media to show the commute he will go through to get to John F. Kennedy High School, which he plans to attend after Manual closes. It's a demonstration of the difficulties Manual students will face as they head to other schools. It took Mitchell, who left his home at 5:30 a.m., two buses, and and a light-rail ride, for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to JFK.

  • John Prieto, The Denver Post

    From left, Manual High School students Amber Bustillos, Junior, 17, and Britany Ortega, Senior, 17, hug on Feb. 17, 2006, a day after the Denver school board decided to shutter the Manual High Education Complex at the end of the year and reopen it as a new school in 2007-2008 with only freshmen.

  • John Leyba, The Denver Post

    DPS Superintendant Michael Bennet listens to public comments regarding DPS's plan to end the 3-schools-within-a-school experiment at Manual High School, and how important Manual has been in Denver's recent history, during a meeting on Feb. 13, 2006.

  • Andy Cross, The Denver Post

    Manual student Arturo Vasquez, 15, along with his mother, Teresa Vasquez, far left, talk with North High School representative, Debra Guerrero, right, during the Manual High School Choice Fair at Manual on Feb. 23, 2006.

  • Andy Cross, The Denver Post

    Manual High School principal Tim Harp, hugs outgoing student Yolanda Castorena, 15, freshman, on the last day of school at Manual High Tuesday afternoon, May 23, 2006. The school is closing for a year and will re-open in the fall of 2007 only for freshmen. Castrorena will attend George Washington High School next year.

  • Andy Cross, The Denver Post

    Antionette Taylor, left front, signs fellow classmate, Sasha Sandoval's t-shirt, right front, on the last day of school at Manual High Tuesday afternoon, May 23, 2006. The school is reorganizing and will re-open in the fall of 2007. Both Taylor and Sandoval are going to East High School next year. Fellow classmates from left to right in the back, Drake Howard, 17-years-old, Shataka Gilmer, 16-years-old, and Jerran Givens wait their turn to sign.

  • Leah Bluntschli, The Denver Post

    DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet, left, talks to Daniel Godoy, 13, and Roberto Godo , the brother and father of Manual High School student Gabriel Godoy, 17, not pictured, who is planning to attend George Washington High School while Manual is closed for the year. Bennet walked door to door Sunday in the neighborhoods around Manual High School to ensure every student from Manual has information about transportation and locations for the new school they will have to attend while Manual is closed for a year.

  • Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post

    Former Manual High School students head to their different high schools on buses on Aug. 22, 2006, in Denver. From left, Marisol Veana, 16, Enedina Silva, 15, and Ana Pando, 16, view a class schedule at their new school, South High School, to try and figure out where they need to go for their first class.

  • Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post

    Former Manual High School students head to their different high schools on buses on Aug. 22, 2006, in Denver. Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet rides one bus with students headed to South High School. Junior Ricky Escobedo, 16, left, hands Bennet his phone and encourages him to call a friend of his to make sure she will be at school. Fellow student April Lucero, 16, leans over the seat to listen in.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was superintendent of the district at the time, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The decision to close the school drew criticism from students, parents and alumni who called it racist and said it disenfranchised the school’s Black and Latino students, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.

“It was a surprise to everybody that we actually had to leave,” said Vanessa Quintana, who was a freshman when the school closed.

Lingering effects of the closure

When Manual High closed students didn’t always feel welcomed in their new schools. They had to retake classes and argued with counselors who didn’t want to accept course credits. Students who were once athletes stopped playing sports, they said.

“Being displaced made me feel sad,” said Shanita Lewis, who attended Manual High as a freshman. “It rattled my confidence and that lingered with me as I continued my education.”

As with Perez, counselors questioned Lewis when she transferred about whether the course credits on her transcript had been earned. The 31-year-old graduated from George Washington High School in 2009, but said she didn’t feel a connection to the school while there.

One study found that by 2009 almost a third of the students affected by the closure withdrew from the district, meaning they either dropped out, moved out-of-state or their whereabouts were unknown. Historically, Manual students had a 6% chance of dropping out, but that increased to 17% after they were displaced by the closure, according to a University of Colorado study that tracked the displaced students after the closure.

Quintana, who has advocated for the diplomas, said that students lost friendships and connections when Manual High closed.

She received her own Manual High diploma in 2018, which Quintana said happened because of her activism, but graduated from Colorado High School Charter in 2009.

The diplomas won’t bring “true justice”, she said, but some of the displaced students missed out on traditional high school experiences, such as pep rallies and class reunions.

“They deserve a graduation ceremony,” Quintana said. “I graduated on time; I deserved it.”

For Lewis, getting a Manual High diploma is “long overdue.”

“For me personally, it gives closure to a very poignant time in my educational career,” she said.

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