DENVER – Turning a school around from one of the lowest ranking to one of the highest takes a lot of hard work. It takes some effective training and a relatable life story.
University of Denver grad-turned-principal Nickolas Dawkins fits that bill, and he is drastically improving the quality of education students receive in Denver. And he's transforming passion into purpose with a little help from his alma mater.
Dawkins first arrived at Hamilton Middle School three years ago.
“Half the kids were doing okay,” Dawkins said. “Most everybody else wasn’t.”
Dawkins says for majority of the kids, the odds are stacked against them before reaching the classroom door.
“That said, we don't ever take the excuse that a kid had a hard life so he or she isn't going to do well,” Dawkins said.
That’s because he knows better. By the time Dawkins graduated high school himself, most of his family members were dead.
“From about 17 on, I raised myself,” Dawkins said. “I talk a lot to the kids about not having anyone at graduation. When the kids are talking about the despair that they have or a feeling of not counting, I know what that feels like.”
He learned a lesson then that he now teaches: Education is a ladder out.
“That’s the way it works,” Dawkins said. “These kids either were born with a silver spoon, they have talent and somebody finds them or they get their study on.”
The students at Hamilton know Dawkins’ story and his expectations. And he says that's part of the reason the middles school now rivals those with the highest growth levels in the state.
And to whom does Dawkins credit much of his success? Sitting proudly on his desk is a diploma from DU where he got his masters and became a licensed principal.
Dawkins had the passion. He says DU taught him to put that passion to work. Susan Korach, one of Dawkins' professors at DU's School of Educational Leadership and Policy studies, is happy to hear that.
“For kids to thrive in a learning environment, they have to feel a connection – to feel like they are important and families do too,” Korach said. "Nickolas is doing that."
A big part of the DU program Dawkins graduated from involves students partnering with Denver Public Schools. Students spend the year working under DPS principals to experience a day in the life before becoming principal at their own school.
“It’s not a sit in the classroom kind of program,” Korach said. “There is classroom time, but a lot of it is the work they are doing in the schools.”
Now the core values Dawkins was taught at DU are about to be put to their greatest test, as he is set to become principal this fall at Manual High School, one of the lowest-ranked high schools in the state.
The school is six blocks from where he grew up.
“I know it's the lowest-ranking school in our city and it's been in turnaround struggle for a longtime,” Dawkins said. “But I have to follow my heart. I have to go back to my community.”
“I feel empowered to go tell the kids that we love 'em and haven't given up on 'em.”
Part of that sense of empowerment comes from Dawkins’ career as a teacher. Like Dawkins, Korach says the majority of the students in DU’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders were once teachers.
“They come into the program because they've seen things as a teacher they want to change, and are ready to widen the scope of their impact,” Korach said.
Having gotten his start in education in an English classroom at South High School, it seems fitting Dawkins uses one of his favorite poems to teach to his students about what lies ahead.
“The part that really resonates with me is ‘I come to unsettle all the settled laws,’” Dawkins said. “Sure the system may have been built in a way where you don't feel empowered to win. But I'm ready to work with you to change all of that.”