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. 

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.