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TRANSITION: To And Fro On The EdSec Choice

Here's a sampling of just some of the latest news and commentary surrounding the EdSec pick:

Vallas says he is not in running Times Picayune
While the Obama transition has been widely praised as the smoothest in memory, the choice of an education team seems to be the exception -- in part because it requires Obama to make choices he has largely been able to finesse until now.

Uncertainty on Obama Education Plans NY Times
“People are saying things now that they may regret saying in a couple of months,” said Jack Jennings, a Democrat who is president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

Screenhunter_01_dec_13_2026_2Bennet, Duncan Undergo Background Checks EdWeek
Word from sources in Denver is that FBI agents are in town are starting to vet the Denver Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, and that Bennet traveled to Washington this week.

Lobbying for Darling-Hammond Politico (Ben Smith's Blog)
I'm also told Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, has called top transition aides John Podesta and Jim Messina to weigh in on Darling Hammond's behalf.

Education and the Unions NYT (Weingarten letter)
The three very different candidates David Brooks names as possible choices for secretary of education share a common denominator — they all have worked with teacher unions, to great effect.

Obama's choice on education LA Times editorial
After years of public battering, schools need a leader who is less an ideologue than a pragmatist, who puts children ahead of both union and political priorities.

Attacks on Darling-Hammond Don't Fit Obama's Post-Partisanship HuffPo
Much of the substance of their agenda similarly misapprehends the Obama style and vision.

Beware School 'Reformers' The Nation (Alfie Kohn)
Duncan and Klein...are celebrated by politicians and pundits. Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn.

Expectations New Yorker (click below to read full text)
Bennet considered the instruments of standardized testing primitive, and their results incomplete. Besides, a single year's increase could be a fluke-or the fruit of a predecessor's efforts. Still, if a person held the numbers up toa certain light, after a celebratory bourbon, he might see in them the power of plain and unrelenting expectation.

A Reporter At Large

Expectations

Can the students who became a symbol of failed reform be rescued?

by Katherine Boo, The New Yorker, January 15, 2007

www.coveringeducation.org/narrativeSeries.html

January 15, 2007 Issue

 

 Like most juniors at Manual High School, in the impoverished northeast

quarter of Denver, Colorado, Norberto Felix-Cruz was Mexican, multiply pierced,

and laden with chains. Although he was quiet by nature, he clanked when he

walked. On his way to school from the small house he shared with many relatives,

he sometimes passed a park with brown grass and a curious sign: " 'Tis not birth

nor wealth nor state, but get up and get which makes any man great." Norberto

wasn't expecting greatness, however, and he often arrived late. His departures

were just as unhurried. Manual's peacock-blue hallways were peaceful, owing to

the presence of armed police officers, and he found them a good place to linger.

 

 As classes let out one afternoon last spring, he was crouched in front of a

metal bookcase in Manual's basement, smoothing and stowing the fat triangle of a

folded American flag. This was his duty as battalion commander of the Junior

Reserve Officer Training Corps, one of the few elective courses available at

Manual, and the only one with negative social status. When the previous

commander was discharged-she was pregnant and had started to show-the post had

not been hotly contested. Still, Norberto was grateful to J.R.O.T.C. for his

appointment, because it had prompted his mother to brag about him for the first

time since he shamed his family by picking up a drug charge, freshman year. He

was grateful, too, he said, because "J.R.O.T.C. really stands for free

food-Country Buffet after Color Guard, all you can eat, and shrimps and wings

and chimichangas." Thanks to these subsidized meals, he had progressed since

freshman year from scrawny to nearly imposing, an impression that he enhanced

with black work boots, a pencil-line goatee, glittery earrings, and a tendency

to walk with his chin down and eyes half-lidded. It was a stride of wary

resolve, Norberto hoped, and he adopted it as he made his way from the

J.R.O.T.C. office, past the cops, and out to the aluminum bleachers by the

track, where some of his classmates were taking the sun.

 

 "You got the brains of a stripper," a sophomore boy was saying to a plump,

ponytailed girl (another beneficiary of J.R.O.T.C. food) who was dating an older

guy whom nobody liked. Seeing Norberto, the boy changed the subject: "Hey,

Norberto, you know how people get the teardrop tattoo on their cheek the first

time they kill someone? My friend-I'm serious-he put the name of the guy on his

face!"

 

 Norberto worked construction most afternoons, with his father, who had

brought his family up from Durango ten years earlier. They had a drywall job to

finish by the evening. Now, though, Norberto sat and stretched his legs. The

bleachers offered a view of the Rockies, forty miles west, and, against them,

the towers and cranes of downtown Denver. But his focus soon drifted to the

plank on which he sat, which had been freshly tagged with gang graffiti.

Studying the elaborate red scrawl, he said to his friends, "The person who did

this tag didn't know how to spell the name Chici." The Chici 30s, a local gang,

were in ascendance at Manual now that members of their rival gang, the Oldies,

had dropped out. "See," he said, "they think the word 'Chici' begins with a

'Q.' "

 

 "So what's the right way to spell it?" someone asked. It was quiet then,

until the girl with the ponytail protested, "Norberto, stop looking to me like

that, like you're some teacher!"

 

 "Well, I don't care to know," another boy said. "I don't like those dudes,

remember?"

 

 "No wonder the whole city thinks we're stupid," Norberto said, addressing a

recent turn of events that some on the bleachers still refused to accept. "Like,

that's our education in a nutshell-we can't even spell our own gangs right."

 

 Last year, Manual High was one of the worst schools in Colorado. Nine out of

ten students failed the state writing test; ninety-seven of a hundred failed the

math test; one in five freshmen graduated. This wretched showing belied the fact

that, for a decade, Manual High had been the object of aggressive and thoughtful

reforms. The most recent was a million-dollar intervention by the Bill & Melinda

Gates Foundation, begun in 2001, which turned each of Manual's three floors into

an intimate mini-school, with its own principal. In these environments, some

students had a sense, for the first time, that their teachers knew and cared for

them. But in many classrooms the mutual affection came at the expense of

academic rigor. Discipline was weak, gang ties intensified, and in five years a

student body of eleven hundred shrank by nearly half. The academic performance

of the vestigial students-"the dregs," as one counsellor put it-barely changed.

 

 Manual's imperviousness to reform was an extreme example of a national

commonplace: after a quarter century of concerted attempts to improve urban

school districts, the results for poor children, beyond some gains at the

elementary level, remain slight. Predictably, the troubles at Manual registered

only faintly in Denver's wealthier precincts, where private schooling is the

norm and community advocacy revolves around environmental issues like carbon

emissions and the tree canopy. The school, which was situated at the terminus of

the city's light-rail line, was considered, if at all, with nostalgia. Founded

more than a century ago and named for the kind of labor it prepared students to

do-bricklaying, printing-it had produced some of the city's leading black

politicians. In recent years, though, the neighborhoods from which Manual

derived its students had gone from black to brown, as Mexicans arrived to take

service jobs in the prospering city center. Whites would dominate the

neighborhood next, students predicted; there was already a fair-trade coffee

shop. But for now the commercial offerings on the boulevards included cheap

vodka, kidney dialysis, and a juvenile jail. Outsiders didn't often swing by.

Thus, as 2006 began, the teen-agers were stunned to discover that they had

become symbols of academic failure citywide.

 

 The cause of this unflattering attention was a new superintendent named

Michael Bennet, one of a loose cadre of former business, military, and

government leaders, all education novices, who have taken control of some of the

largest, most troubled school systems in the country. Joel Klein, New York

City's schools chancellor (and a former Assistant Attorney General of the United

States), may be the best known of the group; Bennet is, at forty-two, one of the

youngest. A former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal who had become bored

by the legal profession, he spent his thirties making a small fortune as a

corporate-turnaround artist. Then his thoughts shifted to public service. In

2003, when a friend, John Hickenlooper, was elected mayor of Denver, Bennet

became his chief of staff. Two years later, the superintendency came open for

the fifth time in a decade, and Hickenlooper suggested that Bennet apply.

 

 To Bennet, who aspired to public office, running an urban school district

seemed more likely to end a political career than to launch it. Most of the

children in the district were poor, and eighty per cent were minorities,

including a huge number of Latino immigrants. Nationally, Latinas are twice as

likely to become mothers in their teens, and Latinos of both sexes are two times

as likely to drop out. Moreover, while student achievement is closely correlated

with parental involvement, many Denver parents hadn't attended high school in

their native countries, and some were illegal residents in their new one. The

illegals tended to steer clear of public institutions, including their

children's schools.

 

 Still, Bennet was struck by the fact that a few schools across the country

had raised the test scores of their poor and minority student bodies-successes

that seemed counter to the idea that underlying social conditions had to be

redressed before disadvantaged minority students could do well. As Bennet

studied those exceptional schools-a Knowledge Is Power Program charter school in

the Bronx, public schools in Norfolk and Aldine, Texas-he began to think about

how some of their strategies might be expanded to reform a whole district.

Ambitions began to coalesce, and the school board chose him over two strong

minority candidates.

 

 In July, 2005, when Bennet took control of the district's hundred and fifty

schools, he still knew little about life inside public-school classrooms. He

knew less about children like Norberto. Nevertheless, he moved quickly to impose

on his seventy-three thousand charges the toughest graduation requirements in

the state, aiming to prepare the majority for college.

 

 Some of Bennet's forty-four hundred teachers and principals looked askance at

this abrupt elevation of standards, cautioning that many students would fall

short, and then drop out. Bennet considered this view to be cynical, and saw in

the underpopulated, seemingly irremediable Manual High an opportunity to show

how intolerant of low expectations he planned to be. The school was costly to

run half-empty, and, when he'd paid a visit on the first day of the school year,

he'd found the students and teachers already exhausted. The principals were

feuding, and their attention to children was so erratic that some of them had

taken and passed freshman English only to be forced to repeat the course as

sophomores. "Nobody in America should have to go to a school like that," he told

his wife that night. A few months later, when he had in hand a commissioned

study of the school's dim prospects, he told his school board, "We shouldn't let

any more students enroll there." Board members agreed, and went further: the

current students shouldn't stay and languish, either. In February, as a warning

to the dozens of other schools in the district that were failing to properly

educate poor and minority children-and with little warning to students and

neighborhood residents-the board moved, with Bennet's approval, to shut down

Manual at the end of the semester. It was an admission, Bennet said, of a school

district's absolute failure.

 

 Bennet has an open, lightly freckled face, and an air of capable good

spirits-qualities that only partly mask the intensity and severity of his

judgments. (Even asleep, his wife had noticed, he issued orders, as if crisply

directing his dreams.) His arguments occasionally got ahead of themselves, with

interpretations that outran the facts, but this was not, in the main, a careless

tendency. It was the practice of an overachiever. He liked to announce

improbable goals, then defy expectations of failure. Among the challenges that

now intrigued him were the six hundred students of Manual High.

 

 Other ambitious superintendents admit privately that radical reform has

collateral costs, and that students like Norberto bear them. Compared with

pliable second graders, teen-agers are a poor investment, and districts

routinely write off the worst performers. (In fact, in the age of the

all-determining standardized test, nudging indifferent high-school students to

drop out before exam day is one way for administrators to boost their test

scores.) At first, Bennet seemed to advocate a write-off as well: offering to

give Manual students free transportation to a nearby high school that was almost

as bad. When school-board members objected, though, he began to give the matter

more thought.

 

 The teen-agers' educational deficiencies would not be easily corrected; to

judge by state assessments through the years, many hadn't had a decent year of

schooling in their lives. But he decided that, with aggressive help, some

futures might still be improved. Under Bennet's new plan, the Manual children

would choose from an array of better high schools across the city, and be

offered mentors, summer remedial courses, and academic counselling to ease the

transition. Computer programs would track their performance-a failed test here,

a week of unexplained absence there-and identify those who might need extra

help.

 

 This approach was shrewd politics, some of Bennet's peers in the city's elite

observed. Otherwise, in some future campaign ad, he'd be the rich guy who stole

the futures of six hundred poor children. A futile gesture, said the Manual

teachers, who predicted many dropouts and fleeting public concern. The term

"moral obligation" was also suggested as an explanation of Bennet's interest,

mostly by the superintendent himself. Whatever the motivation, for the rest of

2006 the wholly inexperienced Bennet found himself trying to prove that

teen-agers like Norberto were not lost causes of educational reform. Among his

doubters were the children themselves.

 

 When Norberto was upset, he fell silent. It was a habit he despised in

himself, and one that his friend and classmate Julissa Torrez did not share.

When she was in distress, words flew from her like sparks, and this made the

weeks following the Manual decision less depressing to the student body than

they might have been. A hundred-pound former cheerleader, Julissa had been

changing-flattening her ringlets under knit caps and bandannas. She no longer

wore saucy outfits, and no longer smiled on command. Instead, she wrote clipped,

angry poems. Before the Manual decision, these works had typically addressed the

males she was falling for ("I'm one confused Virgo, and not ashamed to say it,

because I always choose the boys with downfalls") and the world in which she and

Norberto were growing up:

 

 Go home be ashamedfoodstamps to medicaidpoor slang hustlaswe are all each

other customersboys go from apple jacks to weed sacksfast.

 

 In February, though, she addressed her poems to Superintendent Bennet. One

couplet conveyed neatly the sentiments of Norberto and the rest of the student

body, some of whom were so attached to Manual that, upon enrolling, they'd

carved its initials into their skin:

 

 You might as well put us in jailbecause your plan sets us all up to fail.

 

 When Bennet arrived at Manual for a community meeting one winter evening,

Julissa summoned the old cheerleader bravado, stood, and read one such poem

"right to his face." When she finished, a hundred and thirty people cheered, and

the next day her words were in the Rocky Mountain News. It was the beginning of

a season-brief, it turned out-when strangers seemed to hang on what Manual

students had to say.

 

 The high point, Julissa and Norberto later agreed, was February 17th-the day

that the students marched down icy streets to the superintendent's office, a

crew of cameramen beside them, demanding that Manual stay open. Julissa wept,

and punched the air. "We're human beings, not animals to be tested on!" she

screamed. "I am successful, whatever you say!" Norberto, coatless and freezing,

stood at the periphery, holding a sign that someone had put in his hands.

Education activists from a nonprofit organization downtown were energetically

backing the rebellion, providing reporters with tips and students with stickers

that said "Not My Choice." Most of the Manual faculty supported the protest,

too, in part because they were angry at Bennet, who had publicly declared their

work a failure, and in part because they feared for the children. As a Manual

principal named Tim Harp put it, "You put these kids in a regular school-well, I

hate to say it, but they're going to get punked. And they can see it coming."

 

 Before long, some of the city's black leaders had joined the movement.

Criticizing school officials who think "they know more about what we need for

our children than we do," the clergyman who heads the Greater Metro Denver

Ministerial Alliance rallied citizens to "stand up like Rosa Parks sat down,"

and the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church called Bennet and his allies

"latter-day representatives of the Ku Klux Klan." The education of white

children would not have been so summarily disrupted, the ministers argued.

Community rallies ended with renditions of "We Shall Overcome," the words to

which Norberto and Julissa didn't know, and civil-rights lawyers began to hang

around. However, Bennet and the school board didn't budge, and by the end of

April, with other outrages presumably beckoning, the television reporters,

ministers, and lawyers moved on.

 

 The students were as perplexed about why they'd lost the community's

attention as they'd been about having it in the first place, but there wasn't

much use in complaining. Julissa had two sisters at Manual, one, Zerina, who was

to be valedictorian, and one a thoughtful ninth grader named Ashley, whose

advice to schoolmates was succinct: "We have to get over losing this thing,

because we're going to be losing things all our lives."

 

 Norberto agreed with this assessment, and returned to his academic routine.

As a student, he was ranked in the middle of his junior class. Many of the

adults at Manual, however, assumed that his grades were lower-a poor opinion for

which he blamed himself. When he started at Manual as a freshman, he'd been

preoccupied with working as a drug runner for the Southside Surenos, a gang that

he had joined three years earlier, at the age of eleven. Barely into his first

semester, he left school to serve a sentence in the nearby juvenile jail; the

police had found sixteen hundred dollars' worth of cocaine in his car. "Keep it

true to the blue" was the Southside position on snitching, and he had done so.

But the associates whom he had protected did not visit him when he was

imprisoned, and when he got out he had refused to rejoin them. This meant that

back at Manual, after months of incarceration, he had neither money nor friends.

And while he excelled at the math required for dealing cocaine-"how you divide

and price the ounce, given your profit-over-cost calculations"-he was behind in

all his other subjects. "And you know the most depressing thing?" he said. "I

didn't sell drugs for survival, like some of my relatives had to, back in the

day. I just sold drugs for PlayStation."

 

 There is a Mexican saying about making mistakes young, El que mas temprano se

moja, mas tiempo tiene para secarse: The earlier one gets wet, the more time to

dry. Norberto thought that making mistakes young just gave a boy more years to

live with the consequences. His eyes betrayed this dark self-assessment, in

those instances when he lifted his head. One day, Julissa pulled up a chair.

 

 He had registered her presence already. Julissa and her sisters had a quality

that he wanted to emulate. Though they walked daily into the same street

foolishness he did, they had a way of backing off that made the confrontation,

not the confronted, look small. His male classmates would have laughed to learn

that he studied the street sense of underweight females, but he took life

instruction where he found it. "In jail, I wondered what a friend is, and what

it means to trust," he said one day, quietly, watching Julissa and one of her

sisters across the table at lunch. "But maybe it's just, when you tell the story

of yourself, you don't have to leave things out."

 

 Julissa's own story involved a disabled mother, an absent father, overcrowded

public housing, and transient motels. But she believed that self-pity was

morally lame. "So a really bad life is, like, when your dad teaches you to cook

up the crack before he teaches you to read," she told Norberto. "Otherwise, have

an issue, grab a tissue, suck it up." She categorized her classmates as "Wants

to go up" or "Doesn't care," and pushed Norberto to be one of the former. Some

weeks, his parents asked him to skip school to do drywall, in order to meet a

car payment or the six-hundred-dollar monthly rent. Other times, he said, "I

missed school because I'd missed school, and didn't see how I would catch up."

When Julissa didn't spot him in homeroom, though, she'd call: You make this

place less boring-get up and come. Her sisters would work on him, too, until by

the start of junior year Norberto was the one making morning calls to ambivalent

scholars. "Not like I rose up high out of the ashes," he said. "Just a little

more further from the ground."

 

 Now, though, all of Denver seemed to know that the Manual classes that

Norberto had struggled to pass were laughably easy, and he felt a little

foolish. "I think Bennet makes our school look bad to make himself look good,"

he said. "Though when he says we should go to college, maybe that really is for

our betterness. But what if I'm not smart enough anymore, to get that far?"

There was something a teacher said in the days of protest: The world needed

followers, too.

 

 Julissa didn't have the same academic anxieties. A student-government leader

who was second in her class and whose mother made sure that she stayed there,

she was confident even in Honors World Literature, which she called "my

college-hard course." Although the books that the teacher assigned were set in

crazy places, she made connections with ease, and the lesson of the failed

Manual protest seemed similar to something that she'd recently written in an

essay on "Things Fall Apart," by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe: "Getting

beat down help in the future because it breaks you to do whats right instead of

fallowing the crowd."

 

 The average high-school student today is weaker academically than the average

high-school student of 1950. This phenomenon is often ascribed to declining

standards and the degradation of culture, but democratization has been a factor,

too. We now expect public high schools to offer academics-the foundation of

college work-to more, and more kinds of, children. In the past twenty years, the

number of high-school students who say that they expect to finish college has

doubled, to more than seventy-five per cent, with the largest gains shown by the

urban poor. On the other hand, the increase in the number of students who

actually finish college is less than ten per cent.

 

 When George W. Bush promoted his No Child Left Behind plan in the 2000

Presidential campaign, he said that he wanted to realize more of those

aspirations, by subverting "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The

formulation had a pleasing moral simplicity, and, in the years since, the

repudiation of low academic standards for low-income and minority children has

become dogma for both the left and the right. However, the average tenure of a

superintendent in a large, high-poverty district is twenty-eight months, a

statistic that suggests the practical and political difficulty of actually

raising standards and then helping children to meet them.

 

 Last May, in Michael Bennet's eleventh month on the job, he grasped more of

its contradictions: for instance, that one way to avoid charges of racism was to

continue to neglect bad schools for minority children. But he had been

conditioned to see salutary effects in a great, public-spirited challenge. In

his childhood home and at his high school-St. Albans, a private boys' school in

Washington, D.C.-ideas about privilege and obligation were typically linked. His

grandfather had been an economic adviser in Franklin Roosevelt's Administration.

His father ran the U.S. Agency for International Development under Jimmy Carter

before assuming the presidency of National Public Radio and, later, of Wesleyan

University. Such a lineage exposed a boy to certain possibilities, and Michael

had done well by them. Now, applying himself to children who had

self-perpetuating birthrights of their own, he was undaunted by the fact that

more experienced superintendents had failed at reforms less ambitious than his.

"Well, one of these days someone's going to pull it off," Bennet said to me last

spring. "Besides, I really don't see how you can hold both propositions to be

true: that these urban public schools aren't fixable and that the America of a

decade or two from now is going to be a place where any of us would want to

live."

 

 One Sunday morning shortly after the Manual protest movement sputtered, he

took this relative optimism to a Presbyterian church in a neighborhood called

Park Hill, where the houses are large and gabled and the tree canopy-oaks,

buckeyes-stands at a healthy fifteen per cent. Thirty-five years earlier, Park

Hill's white residents had moved to keep minority children out of the

community's public schools, leading to the first Supreme Court case to

recognize the right of Latinos to a desegregated education. The 1973 case, Keyes

v. School District No. 1, had helped change the character of Park Hill as well

as civil-rights law, and the neighborhood was now one of the most progressive

and civic-minded in Denver. The Denver public schools, though, were like most

urban school districts across the country: as segregated as they were in the

nineteen-sixties.

 

 Standing before a packed room of congregants and citizens, Bennet looked

slouchy and boyish, the shirttails of his oxford escaping his trousers as he

bounced on his feet. "Think about it," he said. "What other public institution

would we let sink to this level? If the Mayor says, 'I'm going to pave one

hundred and fifty alleys,' then comes back the next year and says, 'Well, I

spent all the money and only got to two, I'll get to it next year,' we'd go

crazy. But when we spend three quarters of a million dollars in a school

ostensibly teaching a subject, and only two kids in that school learn anything,

we think that's normal. And I think that's because we've allowed ourselves to

confuse the system's lack of quality with the kind of kids who are in our

district."

 

 In his prep-school days, Bennet had been a fair actor, in roles ranging from

wood sprite to God. He has a low, gravelly voice that carries without volume and

gives a deadpan, cheerful air to his admonitions. His listeners, having been

reproved for their indifference to the disadvantaged, generally come to feel

that they've been puzzling out a rescue plan with him-unlike other shirkers in

the room. As Bennet turned to the intricacies of his reform agenda, people began

to nod approvingly.

 

 "Class size matters, and the kind of breakfast a kid gets matters, too. But

the studies make clear that good schools are, first and last, about the quality

of the teaching," he said. No Child Left Behind does virtually nothing to

inspire talented people to join the profession, and Bennet didn't have the funds

to raise salaries significantly, owing to rising pension costs and declining

enrollment in the district. Still, he wanted Denver to be known as a place where

the craft of teaching was taken seriously and a sense of philanthropic mission

embraced. His chief academic adviser and pedagogy coach, Jaime Aquino, had

been a seminarian, counselling lepers in the Dominican Republic, after which he

taught and ran bilingual programs in the New York City schools. Already, Denver

voters had approved a twenty-five-million-dollar tax increase that allowed

Bennet and Aquino to expand a model program that paid teachers for improving

achievement and taking assignments in high-poverty schools. (The most

experienced and credentialled teachers have always clustered where they add the

least value: in public schools with affluent student bodies.) Now the two men

would train their teachers and principals in strategies that were showing

measurable results in impoverished settings elsewhere in the country: for

instance, asking middle-school students who were below grade level in reading or

math to forfeit electives for a double dose of that subject. They would reduce

the time that teachers spent on matters unrelated to student achievement, and

provide more and better data about how individual students were progressing

throughout the year. (Only after the school year is over do state tests tell a

teacher which students have failed to learn.) Though urban schools are typically

better at measuring what eight-year-olds do than what teachers and

administrators do, Bennet promised accountability on both sides.

 

 "I want us to be a leader in this country at a time when, more than anything

else, the American public needs to see an urban school district succeed," Bennet

said in conclusion. "So what I'm asking you for now is to refuse pessimism about

our kids, to hold me accountable, to keep this conversation about student

achievement going, to sign up-got to slip a plug in here-to be a mentor for one

of the Manual students." He stopped, shrugged, and opened his palms. It took him

half an hour to detach himself from listeners who wanted to enlist in his cause.

 

 We got into Bennet's six-year-old Saab, then sped past City Park, with its

zoo, formal gardens, and lakes, and entered less congenial territory. He wanted

to show me around Manual High. I had known Bennet slightly fifteen years

earlier, through his brother, James, a friend who is now the editor of The

Atlantic. Michael was then clerking for a federal judge, and positioning himself

for a prime appointment in the U.S. Department of Justice as the Clinton

Administration began. He struck me at the time as someone to whom old-fashioned

words like "clubbable" and "well met" would apply, but he wasn't particularly

happy. He was only a few years out of law school, and the predictability of

his prospects already chafed. Before long, he fell in love with an environmental

attorney named Susan Daggett, whose relish of the legal practice clarified his

suspicion that he was in the wrong profession. They married, and when she was

offered a good job with a nonprofit organization in Denver he gave up the East

Coast and the law with some relief.

 

 A bit at a loss about what to do in Denver, Bennet had applied for a job in

the investment company of Philip Anschutz, a political conservative whose

business in oil, railroads, and telecommunications had made him one of the

country's wealthiest men. Bennet's liberal friends were dubious, and Anschutz's

people were, too. Anschutz recalled, "While he'd held a string of prestigious

jobs, there was internal controversy about hiring him, since he lacked a

business background and some of the necessary practical skills. But I was

impressed with his presence-the quiet, understated intelligence, the quality of

being both well read and open-minded." Anschutz offered him an entry-level,

sixty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year position on the condition that he attend, at

his own expense, evening classes in accounting and finance. Three years later,

Bennet was a managing director of the company, at work consolidating failed

movie-theatre chains into the largest theatre chain in the world. ("You'll never

hear me say I want to run the schools like a business," Bennet liked to tell

Denver's teachers. "I made my living off of bankrupt ones.") He was in his late

thirties, with two young daughters, and more money than he knew what to do with,

since his most expensive avocation, sailing, was difficult to pursue in the

Rockies. In 2003, when Hickenlooper was elected mayor, Bennet gave up several

million dollars in unvested shares to become Hickenlooper's chief of staff.

 

 Hickenlooper had also forsaken millions of dollars to work for the city. He

became a popular mayor, able to generate support, in a historically libertarian

milieu, for government schemes to protect the environment and house the

homeless. Bennet, meanwhile, earned a reputation as the hidden mayor. "Half the

time, he didn't want me to know what was going on," Hickenlooper told me,

laughing. The two friends act like brothers, with the rivalrous impulses that

this implies, but they generally agreed about the schools. Despite Denver's

economic revitalization, the willingness of the teachers' union to take risks,

and the passage of a three-hundred-million-dollar bond for school improvement,

the schools weren't getting better fast enough. Hickenlooper thought that the

district needed Bennet's implementation skills and tenacity.

 

 Bennet is not by nature introspective. "The examined life is not worth

living," he sometimes says, and as he drove us toward Manual he claimed not to

have lost a minute's sleep over the decision to close it. "I'd like to get to a

place where it's not the superintendent saying, 'You need a better school than

this'; it's the community expecting and asking for that," he said. "But, until

good schools are demand-driven, you need a proxy for the demand. Voting rights

weren't demanded for a long time, either, and I don't think the analogy to the

civil-rights movement is far-fetched at all."

 

 But, if closing Manual High was the right decision, the protests helped

Bennet realize that he had been imperious in the process of making it-neglecting

to keep parents and students informed as he considered and reconsidered his

ideas. Many in the community now regarded him as a liar as well as a racist, and

were skeptical of a compensatory promise he had made: to redesign and reopen

Manual as a model high school, beginning with ninth graders in 2007 and adding a

grade each subsequent year.

 

 The idea of gradually reopening Manual troubled the part of his mind that

made cost-benefit calculations. Shrinking enrollments in the district had

generated more than a million square feet of surplus classroom space, and little

practical need for the school. But after the popular backlash, he found himself

soliciting residents' advice about the sort of programs they'd like to see at a

new and improved Manual High. The next time Bennet moved to close a troubled

school-and he had a wish list-he thought that he would demonstrate more

patience. He indicated this intention while caroming around corners, liberally

interpreting stop signs, sipping coffee, encapsulating the academic history and

test scores of every school he passed, admiring images on his periphery-three

straight-backed Mexican women with red parasols promenading down a razed city

block, like a barrio Seurat-and chatting on the phone with his wife, who was

home with their daughters. Only when he pulled into the Manual parking lot did

his timing seem off. He banged into a parking barricade, sending notebooks and

budget reports flying.

 

 He had expected the school to be empty on a Sunday. Entering the lobby,

however, he was surprised to hear cymbals crashing and women's voices rising in

the darkened auditorium. He peered in and saw a hundred hat brims: wide ones

wrapped in cotton batting or festooned with plastic roses; skinny ones with

dotted-swiss veils. A neighborhood church was borrowing the space for its

services, and within seconds the preacher's voice thundered over his choir: "My

eyes fool me not! Here is Michael Bennet, the overseer of all these school

changes."

 

 Bennet was trapped. The preacher summoned him to a makeshift pulpit on the

stage, and the parishioners, mostly black, surged forward. Their hisses were

soft, this being church.

 

 To some of Bennet's aides, the rancor in the community seemed incoherent: the

man was trying, after all, to help their children. But over the last ten years

the parents and grandparents in the auditorium had seen reform plans come and

go: no-fail policies, parent contracts, pay-for-performance incentives, critical

friends' groups, inquiry-based learning programs, something called Advancement

Via Individual Determination, and the Gates small-school model. Bennet's

proposal seemed part of the usual cycle: reformist passion, disappointing gains,

dereliction.

 

 Standing among the elders, who were swaying in satiny robes, Bennet looked a

good deal more wood sprite than God. He began by apologizing for his unpolished

shoes. Then he apologized for his absence of neckwear, for his lack of prepared

remarks, and for rushing the Manual decision. After that, he hung his head for a

moment, as if he didn't know what to say next. In the weeks since his critics

had called him a racist, Bennet had taken to quoting Martin Luther King, so I

was braced for a bit of mellifluous, marginally relevant oration. Instead,

Bennet's flight of ingratiation ended. "Last year, on the tenth-grade math test,

only thirty-three African-Americans in the entire district passed," he resumed

flatly. The swaying stopped. "Thirty-three-in the entire city and county of

Denver, Colorado. And only sixty-one Latinos. This is a fight."

 

 For Julissa Torrez and her sisters, school was the easy part. The rest of

their childhoods had been marked by so many untimely deaths and violent

incidents that they thought their family was the object of a hex-one beyond the

scope of the Mexican grandmothers in the neighborhood, whose white magic

involved feathers, bathtubs, and eggs. One day after school, Julissa knelt on

the floor of her living room, sighed over a recent poem-"After murder,

everything feels absurder"-and picked up the Manual yearbook. She studied the

photographs intently, and, after a while, took a pen topped with a pink marabou

feather and put a small "x" beside some of the names. Nicanor, Angelica,

Samantha: "What I hear, they're dropping out."

 

 The living room was appointed with plastic ferns and paintings of Jesus; on

the sofa, her sister Zerina, Manual's impending valedictorian, wept. Earlier in

the week, she'd given birth to a daughter. Julissa's mother had been born with

half an arm, and she sat nearby, expertly balancing the newborn on the stump

while using her hand to make phone calls: first to see about replacing the

Medicaid card that had been in her purse, which had just been stolen, and then

to her eldest daughter, Dominique, who was at the hospital awaiting tests

regarding a precancerous condition in "the girl parts." At the calls'

conclusion, Julissa's seven-year-old half brother, Isaiah-the product of her

mother's relationship with a drug addict who was subsequently imprisoned-removed

a Pop-Ice from his mouth and cried for attention. But at that moment a pregnant

neighbor appeared at the screen door, also in tears. Prenatal tests, she

informed everyone, suggested that her child would be born disabled. The

attendant hugs and offerings of Pop-Ices were interrupted by an official from

the housing authority, who stopped her car in front of the house and yelled at

the family for not watering the lawn.

 

 Julissa remained transfixed by the yearbook on her knees. Candido, Desiree,

another Desiree, Vincente, Ebony, Kia, James, Sigourney, Mya, Crystal, Elijio,

Mercedes, Ieasha. "Some kids were going to quit anyway-their families need them

to work and all," she said. "But, for a lot of people, Manual is home, and it's

like now we're being taken away and put in foster care, where maybe we won't be

wanted. You'll be showing up, having to start over, in a place where everyone

thinks you're dumb. And, besides, what if you choose a school and Bennet

closes that one, too? They say he's going to be closing all the minority

schools, eventually." She turned a page. "This girl says she's going to South

High, but honestly? I don't think she's going to make it." Julissa lost her

train of thought then, the pink-feathered pen hovering over a photograph of

Norberto. Lately, it occurred to her, he'd been keeping his eyes to himself.

 

 Manual lacked air-conditioning, and by the first week in May the climate

inside the school was better suited to growing papayas than to learning,

although neither activity was being attempted. One morning, in a room with a

poster of Einstein over the door, an inspirational speaker dispensed advice to

Manual's graduating seniors: "A grateful attitude will take you a long way!"

Meanwhile, other imminent graduates were hauling garbage to two Dumpsters that

sat next to the bleachers. "Our teacher decided that cleaning up could be our

final exam," one boy explained.

 

 A student's right to trade a bad school for a better one is a cornerstone of

the No Child Left Behind Act. The Manual closing simply forced the issue for an

entire student body. There were twelve traditional public high schools in

Denver, and while Bennet considered only three to be in good shape, most had

strong academic offerings and higher test scores than Manual. To the students,

though, test scores and course offerings were not dispositive. Most chose their

new school based on whether a friend or a cousin was already enrolled, and able

to offer a fig leaf of social protection. Julissa decided to follow a favorite

guidance counsellor, Mr. Durgin, to South, a large and racially diverse school

five miles away, which offered courses ranging from Japanese to Advanced

Placement music theory.

 

 One Tuesday morning in May, South guidance counsellors arrived at Manual to

help Julissa and the other incoming students choose their classes for the fall.

Bennet had planned the day in the hope of generating some excitement about the

next academic year, and the South counsellors seemed capable of carrying out his

directive. Led by a silver-haired woman with a voice made for bedtime stories,

they met with Julissa and the other students one by one, asking about their

hopes for the future (careers in massage therapy figured large); analyzing

transcripts for glimmers of academic strength; and gently advocating

college-prep coursework for students who asked questions like "European

history-so what's that about?" and "Is geology the thing with the maps?"

 

 "I think you're ready for more of a challenge," they insisted to student

after student, a few of whom stiffened and shrugged. But, leaving the room,

Julissa and most of her classmates felt pleased in their choice of classes, and

of school. "Lady was banging," concluded a boy who had shaved notches in his

eyebrows, to indicate the gang he belonged to. "And South ain't no ghetto

school, either." The counsellors, however, looked aghast. A hundred and

sixty-eight Manual students were scheduled to attend South that fall. A hundred

and five of them hadn't shown up.

 

 Down the hall, counsellors from other high schools were meeting their

incoming students, though not all the welcomes were warm. An influx of terrible

students can quickly turn a school that has been making decent progress by the

standards of No Child Left Behind into a failing institution.

 

 Norberto had chosen North High, five miles from home, because it was where

the cheerful retired major who ran his J.R.O.T.C. program was being transferred.

He didn't know that Bennet was hinting he might close North, too, barring swift,

dramatic improvement that Norberto and the other incoming Manualites were

unlikely to spur. The North counsellors examined no transcripts and asked few

questions about goals, and, when a special-ed student wandered in bouncing a

basketball, an irritated counsellor shooed him out and shut the classroom door.

The door automatically locked, and soon other aspiring North students were

milling in the hallway, unable to get in. This lockout ran counter to Bennet's

hopes, but it seemed to fulfill the students' expectations. As a rule, strangers

weren't eager to meet them.

 

 Three days earlier, their prom had taken place in a suburban hotel whose gift

shop sold Rolaids and Liberty Bell paperweights stamped "Denver." The conference

room where they danced was bleak-the decorating committee had funds for only

twenty balloons-so excitement built at the discovery, down a hallway by the

check-in counter, of a fountain in a grotto of plastic rhododendrons. This

display was intended as a backdrop for wedding and quinceanera photographs,

and the teen-agers headed over to pose. However, their orange stilettos, blue

Mohawks, snake-head canes, and trilbies with two-foot-long feathers startled the

tourists arriving at check-in, and the manager had a word with a Manual

principal. The students left the grotto just as those locked out of the

classroom now shrugged and headed for the exits: coolly, as if this outcome had

been their choice.

 

 The Denver Public Schools headquarters is a gray hulk on Grant Street,

downtown, in the geographic limbo between the Governor's Mansion and the

titanium rhomboids of the Denver Art Museum. The central feature of the

superintendent's office, on the top floor, is a shiny conference table; on it,

during a meeting shortly after registration day, lay piles of spreadsheets and

the increasingly weary head of Michael Bennet.

 

 Despite the controversy, Bennet had, by the end of his first school year,

built up a fan base of sorts. Principals, initially skeptical of his reforms,

now seemed enthusiastic, and Comcast, Whole Foods, Crate and Barrel, and the

city's business elite had helped raise five million dollars-a record

amount-toward their implementation. The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News

were following his progress closely and intelligently, and Bill Clinton would

soon show up at one of Bennet's training workshops for principals, to cheer them

on. The plan to rescue the Manual students, on the other hand, was a bust.

"Wait," Bennet told his aides when he lifted his head from the table. "Can you

just tell me what the biggest problem is?" A senior adviser, Brad Jupp, replied,

"The answer to that is that every problem sucks."

 

 The rescue plan depended heavily on mentors, of whom Bennet had recruited

nearly two hundred and fifty in two months with the help of local nonprofit

organizations. Mostly white professionals, and many experienced in mentoring,

they were prepared to follow their assigned children until the end of 2006, when

the students would theoretically be settled in their new schools. But suspicion

ran so deep among the students that half of them refused the offer. And the

children who did accept mentors barely saw them, because the schools forbade

private meetings until the adults had gone through lengthy criminal-background

checks. In the interim, more students dropped out of the program, and even

ice-cream socials weren't luring them back.

 

 On Grant Street, Bennet had surrounded himself with some brilliant,

determined people, among them Brad Jupp, who had helped design the model program

to pay teachers for increasing achievement and, in an earlier incarnation as a

middle-school teacher, persuaded inner-city adolescents to share his love of

Ezra Pound. Jupp feared that Bennet's increasing obsession with Manual was

consuming a disproportionate amount of time. There were five or six other

troubled high schools in the district; an entire middle-school program in need

of reform; and overcrowded elementary-school classrooms whose amelioration would

cost millions of dollars that the district didn't have. The teachers upon whom

everything depended were overwhelmed by new curricula and grading standards, and

considered Bennet's proposal for a salary increase-two per cent-disrespectful.

Meanwhile, Bennet's top aides were rushing to pick up the soda for the next

gathering of mentors and students at Manual, or hastily assembling a college

fair in the gym, or trying to find out why one Manual principal had sent

students to a course in rope climbing when they should have been registering for

next year's classes.

 

 "But these are the last weeks before we lose these kids for the summer,"

Bennet told Jupp, his voice unusually plaintive. He rose from the conference

table, phoned another top administrator, and sent him off to Manual, too. There

were five hundred and fifty-eight students now left at Manual, and many citizens

saw the fate of those children as emblematic of the broader reform, and of the

sincerity of his commitment to minority kids.

 

 After a semester of being yelled at by Julissa and her peers, Bennet had

begun to see them more clearly, and to see as well that, in his ardor to save

them, he had managed to add to their troubles. He'd been asking them to be

optimistic about their futures, and about their intellectual

capabilities-capabilities no longer abstract to him-while simultaneously

broadcasting the evidence that their education had thus far been a farce. As

Norberto put it, "Manual gave me my pride back, then Bennet took the pride

away."

 

 In the past, when Bennet had been faced with a complex problem, his charm had

helped him solve it. But, to the Manual students, that quality-they called it

slickness-was simply a part of his privilege. They knew that he was a

millionaire and had gone to a fancy private high school-more, they contended in

anger, than the man would ever know about them.

 

 In a neighborhood whose stores were fronted with orange banners-"Glass Pipes

for Sale!!"-the odds were high that a former drug dealer would backslide, so

parents, friends, and relatives hedged their bets. Thus it was only at the end

of Norberto's junior year that he realized he wasn't his family's big loser

anymore. A male cousin had gone to federal prison, female cousins were leaving

school to have babies, and he alone still had a chance to get a high-school

diploma.

 

 Absorbing that spring's talk of high expectations, he'd begun to think that

his former goal, to supervise a drywall crew, had been set a little too low. And

perhaps the wisdom of his elder relations regarding college-"If you study too

much, you forget to get married until you're so old that nobody wants

you"-contained an element of self-justification? But to have expectations, it

seemed to him, a person had to have a sense that his life was in his control.

 

 "People say, 'Oh, your family can't get ahead,' but actually we get ahead all

the time," he said. "It's just that then one of the trucks breaks-my dad and I

need them for the jobs-or one of my parents is out of work, then we slip right

back down." He thought that he coped fairly well during slippages: "For one

thing, I found this store where you can get twenty cups of noodles, the

supposably shrimpy kind, for four dollars and forty cents." But extreme poverty

gave his mother "worry breakdowns," and, on and off all spring, these had

dictated that he miss classes to work full time. Typically, his grades fell when

he took such jobs, and the additional income was not guaranteed: the drywall

crew most willing to hire him contained some heavy drinkers, given to sleeping

through Mondays and getting the whole crew fired. Back at school, he'd find his

teachers as angry as his bosses had been. Then he'd go home to the basement and

cry. He knew only one line of work in which he could earn the money his family

needed while keeping his dream of a diploma alive, and the Southside Surenos

had let him know that they were hiring.

 

 Arriving at the Manual graduation, Bennet was braced for anger, and, when he

passed out diplomas, some graduates refused to shake his hand. To his relief,

though, most had come to celebrate. One of the graduation speakers cried out, to

bedlam, "We're the future, like it or not!" Afterward, Bennet went back to work.

 

 He was going to try something new that summer for the five hundred and

fifty-eight. Since taking the job, he had thought a lot about his own education,

with its challenges, expectations, and webs of social connections; he knew that

his adulthood would have looked quite different had he lacked them. So he

arranged a summer internship at a law firm for his mentee, one of the shyest

boys in the school, and opened a wing of Manual as a computer-filled "resource

center," where counsellors might make similar connections for others. Many

children were too busy working to avail themselves of the center's tutoring,

internship, and college-planning services, but Julissa made herself at home. She

began to advise the adults on what Manual should offer when it reopened as a

model high school while considering prospects of her own. An official in the

city government's youth-development program had been impressed by her spirit

during the protest, and now urged her to take a summer job with the city.

 

 She'd worked every summer since she was thirteen, including a stint as a

roofer for a dollar an hour. The city youth program paid nine times that

much-real, family-helping money, especially since her fourteen-year-old sister,

Ashley, stood a chance of being hired, too. So one afternoon, after several

changes of T-shirts, the two girls took the bus and the light rail to southwest

Denver to be interviewed. Their appointment was in a neighborhood that felt like

a suburb, as it had commuter colleges, big-box stores, and a Six Flags amusement

park. They were excited, until they got off the train.

 

 It was the beginning of rush hour, and the large intersection outside the

station was snarled with traffic. Julissa and Ashley surveyed the scene

uncertainly, as the lights changed three times. Finally, they tore, heads down,

across one boulevard, then another, keeping the pace as they approached a

residential block of white frame houses. "I represent East Side and I don't

know who represents what here," Julissa said unhappily, eyes darting from left

to right. "No idea."

 

 Their directions had involved landmarks-the parking lot of a store called

King Soopers, a Taco Bell. But which Taco Bell? Or was it Burger King? Panicked

and confused, they went off course. Julissa used up her cell-phone minutes

calling her mother for moral and directional support; her eldest sister,

Dominique, rushed over from her workplace to serve as a guide. Eventually, an

hour after getting off the train, they found the government building. On the

elevator, the girls pressed against the wall as if pinned by centrifugal

force-"Hate elevators," Julissa said-and reached the office just as it was

closing. "Oh, don't worry, just come back next week," a friendly receptionist

said. Julissa tried to smile back. It was not a journey she wanted to make

again.

 

 South High sat in an equally mysterious part of town, and, despite the

reassurance of resource-center counsellors, its appeal faded, too. "I don't want

to just stick to my kind, but I'm scared to go," she said. Ashley, who had been

accepted into a small, competitive program at another public high school, was

uneasy, too, and, anyway, there were flyers at Wal-Mart about a publicly funded

online charter school a few blocks from home. One of the people involved with

the program had been a Denver Nugget, and his daughter was the R. & B. singer

India.Arie. Students did their work on the Internet, and it was graded by

teachers in an office somewhere else. Plus, they could train to be nurses or

doctors, or something; the details weren't clear. Still, after a stressful year,

the chance to stay near home, with Internet access and relational proximity to

India.Arie, seemed soothing, so two of Manual's star students changed their

plans.

 

 "DENVER SCHOOLS PICK UP THE PACE," read the headline in the Rocky Mountain

News one day in August. Although Bennet's ideas still hadn't been fully

implemented, his district was posting historic increases on state exams in

reading-single-year increases that were greater, in grades five through ten,

than in the past four years combined. Math scores were up, too, and minority

children had improved more than white children-though it would take eighteen

more years of such incremental improvement for the minority kids to pull even.

 

 Bennet considered the instruments of standardized testing primitive, and

their results incomplete. Besides, a single year's increase could be a fluke-or

the fruit of a predecessor's efforts. Still, if a person held the numbers up to

a certain light, after a celebratory bourbon, he might see in them the power of

plain and unrelenting expectation.

 

 For a few days, feeling hopeful, Bennet tried to relax. He read a book of

Buddhist reflections, and many "Mr. Putter & Tabby" books with his daughters.

Some mornings, though, he woke up with a feeling that had chased him all summer,

of something unpleasant about to occur. He sensed that he was about to fail at

something he'd worked hard at, and for the life of him he didn't know why.

 

 It was his particular skill, his wife believed, to distinguish the worthy

challenges from the impossible ones. But when he ran into Manual parents and

students and inquired about plans for September, their answers struck him as

alarmingly vague. It seemed increasingly clear that, despite his efforts, he had

failed to reach the five hundred and fifty-eight. A mass dropout now seemed

likely.

 

 Driving through his neighborhood one Saturday with all this on his mind, he

passed an election sign with a familiar name on it. One of his friends in

Democratic politics had started a run for the state senate. From past

experience, Bennet could envision how the candidate would spend that summer

weekend, and every other one until November: studying maps marked by colored

pins showing clusters of voters, then going out to knock on hundreds of doors.

He called an aide, a veteran of political campaigns, and asked, Could we capture

some children this way?

 

 A strapping boy named Pedro, half-awake, half-naked, stared perplexed through

a torn screen door. "Sorry to wake you up," Bennet said. It was a Saturday

morning last fall. "We're from the schools. Can we come in?" The boy put on a

shirt, and Bennet and Jaime Aquino, his chief academic adviser, walked into a

living room crammed with beds. One of them was occupied by a boy who slept

through their entrance, an announcer on a blaring television saying, "A lot of

people have been talking about this, it's a revolution in blackjack

tournaments," and the frantic barks of two emaciated Chihuahuas clad in zip-up

hoodies, which had come skidding into the room. School had started five weeks

earlier, but Pedro had not shown up, according to the printout that Bennet held

in his hand. "So you're a senior," he began, over the barking. "Can I sit

down?" For a moment, the boy studied the man settling in on a sofa between some

boxer shorts and an aquarium that reeked of decay. And then, in a Spanish

somewhat different from what Bennet recalled from St. Albans, Pedro began to map

the distance between Bennet's ideas and his own economic obligations.

 

 First, Pedro wanted it noted: his younger sister, one of the five hundred and

fifty-eight, was continuing high school, and he was proud of her. But because of

family finances, he had dropped out to work the night shift at McDonald's-a job

he'd held for a year despite not having a car to get him home at two in the

morning. Mentors and college fairs were beside the point. Pedro looked expectant

when he finished, as if hoping for a thanks and goodbye, but Bennet and Aquino

had begun to confer. After a year, the boy was a proven employee, and there was

another McDonald's within walking distance of a high school that offered evening

classes. If he transferred to that restaurant and switched over to the day

shift-what were the hours of the day shift, exactly? It would work, then: Pedro

could attend school after his shift, and get work-study credit for the job.

Bennet's aides could call the managers of both restaurants, and get things

moving along.

 

 For nine weeks, Bennet and two dozen aides and volunteers had been fanning

out across neighborhoods like Pedro's, trying to sell school to skeptical kids.

The campaign had been harder to start than a political one, since many of its

targets were illegal and didn't want to be found, and the goal was not just a

trip to the polls. Still, with the help of Julissa and seven other students who

were hired as peer counsellors and part-time sleuths, the district managed to

locate all but ten of the former Manual students. Weekend visits began, and

hundreds of reclamation projects got under way. "Oh, I'm in school, it's going

great," said almost every child to whom Bennet spoke, especially on the days

when Univision sent a cameraman to accompany him. Then he got better at asking

the questions.

 

 In the first month of school, four hundred and sixty-three former Manual

students showed up-a better rate of return than after previous summers, and a

number that averted a public-relations debacle. The first weeks meant little,

though: math had not yet become confusing and term papers weren't due. Bennet

and his people kept pounding on doors and shaking chain-link gates-better not to

surprise the dogs, they'd learned. And the number of children in school held

steady.

 

 Aides rode the bus with pregnant girls, showing them a school where they

could bring their babies, and argued with parents about the value of a

high-school diploma. A band of outreach workers, the educational equivalents of

repo men, arranged part-time jobs and night-school curricula for other

resisters. "We've been trying to erect reforms over this weak political,

economic, and cultural scaffolding," Bennet said after one long day of visits.

"It's not impossible, but, God, it's really, really hard." Absenteeism remained

high, and every success was contingent; it took a month to get Pedro into

school, whereupon he failed all of his courses. But one rainy night last fall

the head repo man, Steve Dobo, sensed that something had changed when he asked a

young man hanging out on a corner if he knew how to find a certain kid. "You the

police?" was what he expected, along with the rolling of eyes. Instead he got

"You the schools?"

 

 Bennet didn't have much time, then, to think through what he'd set in motion:

a systematic pursuit of the sort of student who lowered aggregate test scores

and teacher morale. Owing to a statewide crackdown on illegal immigrants,

kindergartners were showing up at school without a record of a home or a parent;

teachers were complaining that the pace of reform left them exhausted; and he'd

started a crusade against the lacklustre achievement at North High-this time,

involving the community first.

 

 Still, the fight to reclaim the former Manual students had no precedent in

the age of No Child Left Behind. Out of panic, and of motivations that involved

personal vanity as well as social justice, a safety net was being strung under

a school system's hardest cases-one involving parents, mentors, fast-food

restaurant managers, United Airlines executives and city-council members who

knocked on doors, an engrossed media, nonprofit organizations, and student

leaders like Julissa Torrez. Meanwhile, Bennet had persuaded foundations to

donate staff and funds to keep the tracking effort going for three years, after

which the effort's impact would be studied for application in other Denver

schools, and in other cities, too. The notion of high expectations for poor

children had been converted from the rhetorical to the specific and pragmatic,

and a rescue effort that once seemed a sinkhole of time and effort began to look

like a prototype.

 

 Norberto Felix-Cruz knew that something was up when he returned from work one

Saturday evening to hear that he'd missed a visit from a freckled guy in

sneakers, and, more important, a reporter from "9NEWS." They wanted to know what

he and his cousins were thinking about school. What Norberto was thinking was

simple: fear of jail had ruled out drug dealing that summer, and now the lack of

drug-dealing income ruled out school. But, as he did his drywall the next week,

he wondered whether the man in sneakers was in league with the J.R.O.T.C.

teacher, who seemed to be on his case, too.

 

 People were waiting for him at North High; that was the line, and he didn't

quite believe it, since his presence in school had barely registered before.

But, on his way to and from work, he passed kids whose presence had registered

even less than his own, kids whom Julissa had marked, in her yearbook, with an

"x." They were heading to the bus stop with backpacks of books. They wore

T-shirts that said "Manual Survivor." One morning after a job was finished and

the rent had been paid, he drove to North High and enrolled. J.R.O.T.C. was

social death there, too, so the battalion-commander job was his. It felt O.K.,

until he was driving home on the freeway a week later, and the driver next to

him lost control of his car. Norberto was unhurt, but the truck on which his

jobs depended had five thousand dollars' worth of damage. His mother told him to

quit North High the next day.

 

 However, when the insurance payment arrived, three weeks later, and put the

family debts in order, Norberto decided to try again. The only school near his

house was an online charter school like Julissa's; it recruited from the

juvenilejustice system, and didn't aim high. But it was the best shot he had at

a diploma, and he took it.

 

 "What bugs me is how the principal tries to identify," Norberto said to

Julissa one cloudless autumn afternoon. "He says stuff like 'I know where you

boys are coming from, you gangstas, caught up in the 'hood.' " They were riding

in the patched-up truck, comparing their new schools. Norberto was doing well,

and liked his math and art teachers. "They don't help you all that much-you're

sort of on your own," he said. "But I guess I'll be on my own in real life,

too." Julissa was similarly ambivalent: the kids in her online school looked at

MySpace instead of studying, and there didn't seem to be any books. However,

with the encouragement of several mentors whom she'd acquired while working on

the Manual rescue, she was about to transfer to Thomas Jefferson, one of the

stronger public high schools in the city.

 

 "The principal there, Sandra-I'm getting to know her, and you can just tell

she's out there for kids," she told Norberto. She added that she now had a

"meetings notebook" in addition to her poetry one, and that Sandra's cell-phone

number was in it. "It's where I scribble things down when I go visit the parents

who don't have time to come to community meetings, or when we talk about what

the new Manual should look like, or when I do a pop-up visit at a high

school-like, when a Manual student calls the center and says she's being

mistreated. I've got Bennet's cell-phone number in there, too."

 

 Norberto said, "Like, for me this school year, I'm letting my spark up,

trying to focus. But sometimes, you know, I can't even sleep. I miss school for

work, and, ten years into the future, all I am is a dropout."

 

 "Yeah, I have to miss school, too, to do my pop-ups."

 

 "Hey, Julissa. I didn't say you. I was talking about me, Norberto. I was

trying to tell you-"

 

 He braked hard: a police standoff, twelve officers kneeling behind sedans,

guns pointed at a small brown house. He swerved down a side street as Julissa

leaned out the window, trying to watch their backs. "The eleven-year-old with

the Uzi, no one wants to get to the core of it," he murmured, and then let the

subject go. Julissa was full of fresher conversation, and he was going to have

to work to keep up.

via Whitney Tilson

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Nice blog...
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Interesting article about Obama's education plan from the NY Times. Thank you for sharing the link.


dan,

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