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. 

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Some opponents of the mayor’s plan to scrap the specialized high school admissions exam say the city’s effort to integrate should actually start with gifted and talented programs. But while these parents and alumni groups have lobbied fiercely to keep the specialized high school exam in place, they are calling for a new approach to determining who is “gifted.” 

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.