at the helm

How a principal who ‘never wanted to be a leader’ is transforming a Queens high school

PHOTO: Madison Darbyshire
Principal Carl Manalo in the hallway of QIRT

It was an unusually chaotic morning for principal Carl Manalo. The A train, the only subway line that travels to this remote part of Far Rockaway Beach, was delayed nearly an hour that February morning, and seven teachers out of 20 called in absent due to a snowstorm the previous day.

Bessie Martinez, 19, sat across from the principal. She had just returned to school after several months’ absence, and Manalo used basic Spanish to talk through her new class schedule “temporario.” She should be a junior, but had just 13 credits of the 44 needed to graduate, and speaks almost no English.

“She’s been working,” Manalo said after Martinez left, concerned. “We thought we had lost her, but we found her and got her back.”

Martinez’s story is a familiar one at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology, where 30 percent of its 413 students are English language learners. Many are undocumented, unaccompanied minors, or refugees from El Salvador and Mexico who have ended up in this corner of New York City.

Keeping students in school is Manalo’s biggest challenge, since most of its population lives below the poverty line and many families rely on these students for income. Next year, the school will open a transitional bilingual education program to offer more classroom instruction in Spanish, another step in what many teachers describe as the once struggling school’s radical transformation.

For Manalo, that transformation is centered around vulnerable students like Martinez, who are  just one step from dropping out and becoming “the lost ones.”

***

Founded in 2008,  the school — known as QIRT — occupies half of the first floor of the old Far Rockaway High School, a large comprehensive high school. In 2004, that school was placed on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s list of the city’s most dangerous schools and it was fully phased out in 2011. Even before that, however, four smaller middle and high schools cropped up on its campus.

The early years of QIRT were difficult. The school consistently performed at the bottom of the city in standardized tests, and burned through three principals in five years.

When Manalo arrived as a first-time principal in 2014, teachers were frustrated with the constantly changing leadership. Students saw faculty as transient because of a high turnover rate and inconsistent rule enforcement. There was no money for an art teacher or afterschool programs.

Spanish teacher JoMarie Figueroa, who started at QIRT the same year as Manalo, described the school as “a wild horse.” Kids had nothing to do outside the classroom, she said, and there was rampant fighting in the hallways. Only 12 percent of graduates were college ready, 26 points below the borough average.

In his first year as principal, Manalo said, only 10 of QIRT’s 94 seniors were on track to graduate. Another dozen could not be found.

Since then, graduation rates have risen to 70 percent, up from 55 percent during Manalo’s first year. He hopes to reach the citywide goal of 80 percent in the next year or two.

QIRT’s turnaround didn’t start with academics, Manalo said, but with acknowledging the specific, individual, and often very personal needs of students, and their teachers.

“We’re a Cinderella school,” he said. He hopes QIRT will become a school where every child feels like they can go to the ball.

***

Manalo knows what it’s like to grow up feeling out of place. He was raised in a poor neighborhood in the North Bronx, the child of Filipino immigrants. A scholarship allowed him to consider college out of state, and he fell in love with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

When he turned 18 years old, Manalo came out as gay — first to his friends and later to his parents, who had a hard time with the news. At school and in his Bronx neighborhood, he said, “there wasn’t anyone like me to look up to.” And the conservative Vanderbilt campus was not the bastion of acceptance he might have hoped for. He was outed at the school, he said, and his dorm room door was vandalized. Manalo struggled with whether he was in the right place. He considered transferring.

“I decided I belong here,” he eventually concluded, “and I need to make it better.” He became an activist on campus, campaigning for the LGBTQ community.

Manalo studied education in college but said he felt pressure to enter a field with more financial security and took a job in human resources. A year out of college, however, he was riding the subway home and saw an advertisement overhead for the New York Teaching Fellows, an alternative route to becoming a public school teacher. “Nobody ever comes back years later to thank their middle manager,” he remembers reading on the ad. Unhappy with the monotony of his current job, it struck him to his core.

He immediately enrolled in a masters program in education at Fordham University. In September 2002, Manalo began teaching English at Alfred E. Smith High School, which was then a large, struggling vocational school in a high-poverty neighborhood in the South Bronx.

PHOTO: Madison Darbyshire
Principal Manalo’s office walls are covered with pictures and notes from his students

He quickly learned that being a good teacher often meant going beyond the classroom. “Some teachers are afraid of talking to their students, because of what a kid might say,” he said. Teachers are often afraid, he said, that they will have to take action because of something a student tells them. “Oh well, I say, someone has to do it.”

After Smith, Manalo moved to Lehman High School, another large high school in the Bronx, and then joined the Department of Education as an achievement coach, helping struggling schools across the city make improvements. He grew interested in starting his own school, but after two years of applying unsuccessfully for a new school charter, he was approached about taking over as principal at QIRT.

He accepted immediately, excited to take the helm of a school still in its infancy. It seemed like the perfect place to try to make a big change, starting with the school’s culture.

***

As principal, Manalo greets each student in the hall by first and last name. He frequently reminds students to remove their hoodies or hats as they pass, but he is just as likely to ask how a sick mother is doing, or how an application for a college scholarship is coming along. Students reach out for high-fives on their way to gym, and tell him jokes.

He said he didn’t talk about his sexuality when he was a new teacher. “You don’t know who you are as an educator,” he said. “But then you decide, screw it. This is me. These are my kids.”

As principal, he is openly gay. He is the faculty advisor for the LGBT club, and has led trainings for teachers to ensure the community is an accepting place. “It’s important for kids to see that you can be gay and have a normal life,” he said.

Manalo spends two hours each school day visiting classrooms, observing teachers, and helping students with their assignments, calling that time “the joy” of his day. Walking from room to room, he pokes sleeping students awake and engages the class with questions about their lessons. He stops frequently as he walks, to bend over and pick up bits of paper and trash from the floor.

“I never wanted to be a leader. I just wanted to be a teacher,” he said, an attitude his staff seems to pick up on.

“He treats everyone like we are all on the same level,” said Tenesha Worley, vice principal in charge of school culture. “It makes everyone feels supported,” she said. And when teachers feel supported, she added, they feel empowered to support others.

***

Building a rapport with his faculty took time. In Manalo’s first year as principal, four teachers left or retired. He struggled both to retain other staff and to recruit new teachers to QIRT. Many were reluctant to travel far from their homes to a school perceived as failing.

And some teachers had to change their approach to the role. Manalo is quick to correct a teacher who speaks about a student in a way he considers inappropriate. “It’s one thing to talk about the limits of a student,” he said, “and another to make a blanket statement about how a student can’t achieve.”

Manalo meets with his teachers once a week during lunch to discuss individual students they are worried about academically and emotionally. Each student identified as at-risk by the school is assigned a faculty advisor, who checks in with the student and makes sure he or she is getting the necessary tutoring and assistance.

With students who are homeless or undocumented, every teacher works together to support them, and each other. If there is any irregularity in their attendance or behavior, Manalo wants to be the first to know.

Manalo keeps his closet stocked with tea for students who want to come by and talk. He said he likes to make tea because it puts him in a position of service to the student. By altering the dynamic, he can shift the way students feel about approaching faculty with problems inside or outside the school.

This philosophy has resonated with some students. “Students know what kind of principal they have,” said senior, Jimmy Ortiz, 19. In their school, “they have a say, too, now. He listens to their ideas.”

PHOTO: Madison Darbyshire
Principal Manalo shares candy and jokes with students in the school cafeteria

In the mini-fridge beside the coffee maker, Tupperware containers are filled with an extra lunch or dinner he made at home for one particular student, recently out of jail, who does online coursework in the office.

Manalo also found room in the budget to hire students who are at risk of dropping out or failing due to work conflicts for jobs in the main office or after school.

“His gift is making everyone think that his ideas are their ideas,” said Worley. She recalls one QIRT student whose family lost its income. The student was thinking about leaving school to go to work. When Manalo learned of the student’s situation, he discreetly published an advertisement for a part-time job at QIRT. Manalo encouraged the student to apply and made sure he had a formal interview. “When the student gets the job, they feel like they found a solution and they accomplished something,” Worley said.

For Manalo, these small interventions boil down to a relatively simple idea: “I just say, be the person you needed when you were younger.”

***

Manalo sees his dedication to individual students mirrored by his teachers and administrators. When Manalo interviews a candidate for a teaching position at QIRT, one of the most important questions he asks is: Why did you decide to become a teacher? Everyone hired to work at QIRT answered: For the students.

“My job is to help them realize that goal, every day,” he said.

QIRT’s connection with parents and the Far Rockaway community are harder to realize. Some parents work two or three jobs. Others who are undocumented are afraid of coming to the school, a problem exacerbated since the presidential election by rumors of immigration raids in traditionally safe spaces, like schools.

In the months since the election, Manalo has seen attendance among English learners falter. He circulated flyers with information about student’s immigration rights and had individual conversations to assuage student fears after the election.

“I want them to have faith in the system,” he said. “I want them to know that the safest place they can be is in school.”

***

Manalo admits there is an emotional toll in taking on so many of his students’ burdens. He knows he has students who are going home to apartments without electricity or water, or leaving school to clock in at an all-night job, or sleeping on the subway. These things weigh on his mind in his off-hours.

PHOTO: Madison Darbyshire
Manalo walks through the hallways of QIRT periodically throughout the day, dropping into classes and speaking with his students

He is prone to forgetting it is Friday when school lets out for the week, and is still navigating life without his partner of seven years. They split this fall, and Manalo believes his new role as principal was a force behind the realization that the relationship wasn’t working.

“I didn’t need as much when I was a teacher,” he said, his usually brisk voice growing quiet. “I went from being support to needing more support.”

He no longer feels comfortable in the teachers’ lounge. “They need a space to vent about you,” he explained, “And when you make a difficult decision, not everyone is going to agree with it.”

On really tough days, he might sit in the back of a classroom or sneak down to the school’s daycare center for teenage mothers to see the babies. It reminds him of what he is working toward.

He gains strength from the stories of his students. “When you hear what the refugee kids go through, it’s humbling,” he said, referring to his school’s large population of Central American refugees. “It makes you want to do better because of it.”

The graduation rate for English learners at QIRT has improved, but remains low at 55 percent. Manalo has worked with teachers to design a schedule for students who are at risk of dropping out to support their families. He groups them together in English class and moved lunch to the end of the school day, making it the second to last period. Since many of the students have the last period of the day off, they can eat a free lunch and go straight to work without having to miss class.

Manalo often eats dinner at the diner on Long Island where two of his students work as busboys after school. He stays as late as he can, bringing work with him, but they are always still there when he leaves. He leaves a cash tip with the check.

This story first appeared on The Home Room, a publication produced by the Covering Education class at Columbia Journalism School. 

Opening doors

What other schools can learn from two Colorado Schools of Opportunity

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
South High students Lionel Kulembwa, Eliana Goldberg, Zahra Abdulameer and Shambel Zeru pose for a portrait.

Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, year after year, we see two types of schools: schools in high-income communities and choice schools that enroll high-scoring students,”  he said. “The best way to have high test scores is to have high-scoring students, but these schools don’t necessarily employ exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14 and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students, are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”