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. 

new year

Here’s what Carmen Fariña’s top deputies have on their plates this school year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As the person responsible for 1.1 million students, 75,000 teachers and 1,800 schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña can’t have eyes everywhere.

She has surrounded herself with a small team of key advisors tasked with executing her vision — a group that has stayed put during Fariña’s tenure. As Fariña’s fourth school year kicks off, here’s what her core group of deputies have been working on, and what’s on their agenda this school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson, Senior Deputy Chancellor, Division of School Support

Salary: $225,948

Her story: Gibson has served at virtually every level of school leadership — after starting out as a teacher in Queens over 30 years ago, she rose to become an assistant principal, principal, and a high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, re-empowering superintendents to directly oversee principals instead of the more diffuse system of networks that were created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

She’s also partly responsible for overseeing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $383 million Renewal turnaround program — an ambitious effort to improve schools that have long struggled, which is approaching a key three-year milestone. But despite being Chancellor Fariña’s second in command, she has managed to keep a fairly low profile and rarely appears in the press (except when she does).

What’s on her agenda this year: The education department is dramatically expanding the number of schools with embedded social services — known as ‘community schools’ — this year and Gibson will be responsible for making sure the rollout goes smoothly. She’s also working on efforts to make the city’s specialized high schools more diverse, and oversees the city’s network of field centers designed to provide teacher training and other support services to schools.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Corinne Rello-Anselmi

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, Deputy Chancellor for Specialized Instruction and Student Services

Salary: $216,219

Her story: A nearly 40-year veteran of the city’s public school system, Rello-Anselmi got her start as a special education teacher at P.S. 108 in the Bronx. After a dozen years of teaching, she worked her way up into supervisory positions, eventually becoming the school’s principal and revamping its literacy program. She made the jump to administrator in the Bloomberg administration, and was promoted to deputy chancellor to help oversee reforms designed to integrate more students with disabilities into traditional classrooms.

Advocates have repeatedly pointed out problems with the city’s special education system, including lack of access to key services. But some say Rello-Anselmi tends to be open to criticism, and is receptive to proposed fixes. “She has acknowledged the problems,” said Maggie Moroff, a special-education expert at Advocates for Children. “She’s not closing her eyes and wishing they would go away.”

What’s on her agenda: As the city continues to push all schools to serve students with a range of disabilities, Rello-Anselmi has said she will provide training and support to help schools adjust to the change. Although a working group is responsible for overseeing fixes to the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system, Rello-Anselmi will be watching those changes closely.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose, Deputy Chancellor, Division of Operations

Salary: $197,425

Her story: Before joining the education department in 2009, Elizabeth Rose had a 20-year career in the media industry including at Vault.com, a website that ranks employers and internship programs, and the vacation planning site Travelzoo. After turning to the public sector and cutting her teeth under Kathleen Grimm, the long-serving official in charge of school operations, Rose was elevated to deputy chancellor in 2015. She has frequently been called on to manage difficult problems, including the city’s much-criticized lead-testing protocol, and a controversial rezoning on the Upper West Side.

Joe Fiordaliso — who sat across the table from Rose during the Upper West Side rezoning negotiations as the District 3 community education council president — said Rose was particularly adept at handling contentious conversations with parents. “I’ve never heard a word from her that doesn’t have purpose,” he said. “She’s not someone you’re going to knock off her game.”

What’s on her agenda: Amid a citywide homelessness crisis, Rose is responsible for connecting the one-in-eight students who have faced housing insecurity with social workers and other services. She’ll also supervise the rollout of the city’s universal free lunch program, which began this school year, and would be involved in any new rezoning efforts.

Josh Wallack with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor of Early Childhood Education and Student Enrollment

Salary: $200,226

His story: Before working for the education department, Josh Wallack helped run early childhood programs at the Children’s Aid Society, and worked as legislative director to then-city councilman Bill de Blasio. So it wasn’t a surprise when he was tapped to supervise Mayor de Blasio’s signature effort to provide free pre-K to every city resident — a program that has widely been hailed as a success. Wallack, who was the first administrator to carry the title “chief strategy officer,” was later promoted to deputy chancellor of strategy and policy. But more recently, his title was changed again — to deputy chancellor of early childhood education and student enrollment.

Wallack has also spearheaded other high-profile projects, including the education department’s diversity plan, which some advocates criticized for not going far enough to support integration. Matt Gonzales, who has pushed the city to more aggressively address school segregation, said he respects Wallack (and once had the chance to talk with him in a more relaxed setting when they were stuck in a Texas airport together). “I’ve found him to be really interested in learning about the work that we do,” Gonzales said, “despite it being part of my job to push him as hard as possible.”

What’s on his agenda: For the first time, New York City is offering some families access to free preschool for three-year-olds, with plans to make it universally available by 2021. Wallack will oversee that effort, and will help the education department manage programs for children as young as six weeks old. He’ll also be responsible for carrying out the city’s diversity plan.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor Division of Teaching and Learning

Salary: $205,637

His story: Phil Weinberg began his career at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years. After rising to principal in 2001, Weinberg ran Telly “like the beloved mayor of a close-knit town” as the New York Times once put it, building “learning communities” within the school that helped shepherd students to graduation. In 2014, Chancellor Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

His tenure got off to a rocky start, with some early staff turnover under his watch. But he was seen as a key hire to advise Chancellor Fariña on the high school world, where she has less direct experience. He’s also managed many of the mayor and chancellor’s highest-profile initiatives, from universal literacy to making computer-science classes available to all students by 2025.

What’s on his agenda: Weinberg will be responsible for making progress on many of the mayor’s key “equity and excellence” programs, including making sure more high school students have access to AP classes, expanding algebra instruction to students before they reach high school, and ensuring students are reading on grade level by the end of second grade.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Milady Baez

Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor, Division of English Language Learners and Student Support

Salary: $198,243

Her story: A veteran educator and native of the Dominican Republic, Milady Baez started as a bilingual teacher before rising to assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 314 and principal at P.S. 149 in Queens. She rose to the role of superintendent under the Bloomberg administration, and oversaw more than a dozen schools and bilingual programs. Chancellor Fariña pulled Baez out of retirement to run a new office dedicated to English Language Learners, roughly 13 percent of the city’s student population, and was promoted to deputy chancellor in 2015.

The city has been under pressure from the state to expand bilingual programs, where native English speakers and English learners take classes in both languages, and Baez has been working to reach an ambitious goal of making those programs available to all English learners by 2018. She has earned praise from some, including Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “I think she’s sensitive to the needs of that population,” Arboleda said. “She gets it.”

What’s on her agenda: Baez will be responsible for continuing the expansion of bilingual programs and helping train principals to better serve English learners.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”