Keeping a Close Eye on the Lost Ones

How one principal creates a culture of caring in a struggling Queens High School

Principal Manalo’s office walls are covered with pictures and notes from his students, as well as inspirational quotes. Here, a note from a student refers figuratively to Manalo as, ‘Dad.’ (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

Carl Manalo’s rubber boots sat discarded behind his desk as though he walked out of them in his haste to get to his principal’s desk at Queens High School for Information Research and Technology. The A train, the only subway that travels to this remote part of Far Rockaway Beach, was delayed nearly an hour that February morning. Seven teachers out of 20 called in absent due to the snowstorm that had closed the city’s public schools the previous day.

Bessie Martinez, 19, sat across from the principal at his computer. 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 has 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.”

Bessie’s is a familiar story at QIRT, a school where 30 percent of its 413 9th through 12th graders are English Language Learners. Many are undocumented, unaccompanied minors, or refugees from El Salvador and Mexico who have ended up in this far away corner of New York City. Keeping students in school remains the school’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 be fully bilingual in Spanish, another step in what many teachers describe as the once struggling school’s radical transformation. But for Manalo, the foundation for the transformation begins and ends with vulnerable students like Bessie — one step away from dropping out and becoming “the lost ones.”

A school that claims the longest name in New York City’s Department of Education — Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology — is only six years old. It occupies half the first floor of the old Far Rockaway High School, one of the city’s large comprehensive high schools with a storied past. In 2004, Far Rockaway High was placed on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s list of the city’s most dangerous schools. It was fully phased out in 2011, and carved into four smaller middle and high schools. The early years of QIRT were measurably 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, he encountered teachers who felt unsupported by the administration because of constantly changing leadership. Students disregarded faculty as transient because of a high rate of turnover and inconsistent rule enforcement. There was no money for afterschool programs, or an art teacher. Spanish teacher JoMarie Figueroa started at QIRT the same year as Manalo described the school as “a wild horse.” Kids had nothing to do outside the classroom, 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, only ten 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 his first year. Manalo hopes to reach the citywide goal of 80 percent in the next year or two. Its graduation rate is also nine percent higher than the other high schools that share their building.

QIRT’s turnaround began as a cultural one, Manalo said, and started not with academics, 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 remembers what it felt like to grow up feeling out of place. Manalo was raised in a poor neighborhood in the North Bronx, the child of Filipino immigrants. He attributes a scholarship to an elite summer camp with the first time he ever began to imagine a life for himself outside of his neighborhood. A strong student, a foundation 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, “there wasn’t anyone like me to look up to,” he said. But the conservative Vanderbilt campus was not the bastion of acceptance he might have hoped for. He was outed at the school, 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 helped start a drag show during the school’s homecoming weekend, which just celebrated its 21st year.

Vanderbilt was also the first place he experienced a kind of privilege, or rather the acute lack of privilege that he had never known. He remembered going out to dinner with friends in his dorm, and spending $40, his entire budget for the week. Afterwards, his resident advisor found him in his dorm room eating Cheetos for dinner, and bought him a dinner for the rest of the week. He has never forgotten what it felt like to be unable to afford food.

Principal Carl Manalo in the hallways of QIRT. (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

Manalo had studied education in college, graduating in 2001, but felt pressure to enter a job field with more financial security. He took a job at the International Rescue Committee, which he believed would allow him to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people around the world and eventually travel internationally, all while earning a steady paycheck.

A year out of college, he was riding the subway home from the IRC, where he worked in human resources, when he saw a subway advertisement from the New York Teaching Fellows, an alternative route to becoming a New York City public school teacher. “Nobody ever comes back years later to thank their middle manager,” he remembered reading on the ad. Unhappy with the monotony of his current job, it struck him to his core.

At this point in his career, travel seemed far off on the horizon from his cubicle in New York City and, he was impatient. He wanted to make a difference, and he wanted to make it now. When he got off the subway train he immediately registered for a masters in education at Fordham University. In September of 2002, Manalo began teaching English in Alfred E. Smith High School, which was then a large, struggling vocational school in a high-poverty neighborhood in the South Bronx. There, Manalo’s eyes were first opened to the larger social and emotional needs of his students, and how chronic poverty, instability, homelessness, and hunger impacted his students inside the classroom.

One incident confirmed his choice in his mind. In his third year, a student confided in him the day before a school vacation. Alarmed, he reported it to his supervisor. “She was so mad at me because she had to file a report with child protective services,” he said. Manalo escorted the student to the police station and guided him through the system. That was the day he knew he was meant to be a teacher, and a teacher who cared.

“Some teachers are afraid of talking to their students, because of what a kid might say,” he said. Teachers are afraid that they will have to take action because of something a student tells them, or make an inconvenient intervention. “Oh well, I say, someone has to do it.”

After Smith, Manalo moved to another large, comprehensive high school in the Bronx, Lehman High School. Next, he joined the Board of Education as an achievement coach, helping failing schools across the city make improvements. Experiencing a school from a position of leadership made him interested in starting his own. He applied unsuccessfully for a two years to start his own school when he was approached about taking over as principal at QIRT in Far Rockaway Beach. He accepted immediately. He was excited to take the helm of the school that was, for all intents and purposes, still in its infancy. It seemed the perfect place to try to make a big change, starting with the 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 their sick mother is doing, or press them to find out 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. An English class that was reading the book “1984” turned him into a meme, overlaying his picture with the words, “Manalo is watching you.” He loved it.

A “Change Your Mind, Change Your Mindset” bulletin board in QIRT that reflects the culture of the school. (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

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. There are my kids.” As principal, he is openly gay. He is the faculty advisor for the LGBT club, and has lead safe-space and out-trainings for the other teachers to ensure the community is an accepting place for every student. He said, “as an out administrator, I just act like everything is normal. It’s important for kids to see that you can be gay and have a normal life. And adults.”

He calls the two hours he spends each school day visiting classrooms, observing teachers, and helping students with their assignments, “the joy of his day.” He misses the classroom, and said that if he gets tenure at QIRT he hopes to co-teach a class. Walking from room to room he pokes sleeping students awake, engages the class with questions about their lesson and feigns bashfulness when a staff member pays him a complement, slipping out of the room. Manalo stopped frequently on his walk, to bend over and pick up bits of paper and trash from the floor.

Back in his office, the walls painted the same bright blue of QIRT’s hallways, he said, “I never wanted to be a leader. I just wanted to be a teacher.”

“He treats everyone like we are all on the same level,” said Tenesha Worley, of Manalo’s disarming demeanor. Vice Principal in charge of school culture, and one of Manalo’s closest friends at QIRT, she said, “It makes everyone feels supported.” And when teachers feel supported, they feel empowered to support others.

Photographs of his students wearing their caps and gowns are hung on the principal’s walls, some in frames, others kept up by tape. Next to the closet where he hangs his coat every morning is a school picture of a Latino teen with tired eyes and a soft smile. The boy is homeless, kicked out of his father’s house since he was in middle school. But unlike the 20 other students in the school who live in the shelter system, he is one of the handful of students at QIRT who the city doesn’t count as formally homeless. They are out of sight, sleeping on the couches of different friends or family members; never sure how long the hospitality will last. Most of the families in Manalo’s district are barely getting by, and the addition of an extra mouth to feed can be overwhelming.

“The understanding here is that nine times out of ten, if a student is having a problem, there is an underlying issue outside the classroom,” said Rasahn Staley, the community school director at QIRT. Manalo encourages his team to address problems at the root. Manalo’s style, Staley said, is that if a teacher identifies a problem with a student, “he wants them to identify a solution. Then he will work together with the teacher to implement it.”

Building a rapport with his faculty took time. In Manalo’s first year as principal, four teachers left or retired. He struggled both to stop the hemorrhaging and to recruit new teachers to QIRT who were reluctant to travel far from many of their homes to a school perceived as failing. And some teachers had to change their outlook on their 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.”

An old photo with a student that Manalo keeps in a frame behind his desk. (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

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 being at-risk by the school is assigned a faculty advisor, who checks in with the student and makes sure he or she are 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.

During the changing class periods, a flurry of activity blows through Manalo’s perpetually open office door, a hallmark of his tenure at the school. A group of boys regard the principal’s office as another classroom. They drop their backpacks and make jokes with Mr. Manalo before gym class.

“I ask them to do it,” he said, of the visits that allow him to get one on one time with the students, “so I can check in on them.” These are students Manalo has gotten to know who are most at risk. One boy has recently been moved from temporary housing in Far Rockaway to the South Bronx, a two-hour subway ride from QIRT, each way. Afterwards, the boy’s attendance plummeted to 61 percent, just two or three days a week. Since he started checking in with Manalo in his office every day his attendance has climbed to 75 percent, or an average of four days a week.

It is not uncommon for a frantic teacher or security guard to burst through the door and demand “chocolate!” Manalo reaches inside his desk for the bag he keeps for emergencies. He keeps his closet stocked with tea for students who want to come by and talk. He said he likes to make tea, because from the start it puts him in a position of service to the student. By altering the dynamic, he has shifted the way students feel about approaching faculty with problems inside or outside the school.

This philosophy of openness and acceptance 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.”

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 his online coursework in his office. He heats up the food and puts it on a plate without a word, returning to the endless stream of emails and grant applications.

Manalo found room in the budget to hire students to help in the main office or after school who are at risk of dropping out or failing due to work conflicts. “His gift is making everyone think that his ideas are their ideas,” said Worley. She tells the story of another QIRT student whose family lost its income. The student was thinking about leaving school to go to work, when Manalo published an advertisement for a part-time job at QIRT. When the student saw the advertisement, Manalo positioned himself to encourage the student to apply. The student then sits for an interview to talk about his or her goals and why they want the job, something Manalo considers important training. “When the student gets the job they feel like they found a solution and they accomplished something,” Worley said.

Worley has worked as a teacher and dean in New York schools since 2000, and calls her chemistry with Manalo, who started at the same time, divine intervention. “It’s the first place where I’ve ever seen a person’s niceness really work for everyone.”

Speaking to Manalo about these shifts in school tone, it comes back around to the students. “I just say,” he points to a small framed quote behind his desk, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

Mr. Manalo shares candy and jokes with students in the school cafeteria. (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

Manalo sees his dedication to individual students mirrored by his teachers and administrators. He calls them his team. Part of this affinity comes from hand selecting the faculty at QIRT. Manalo is proud of how many experienced teachers the school employs, unusual in a school with a small student population and stretched budget. But he said his priority is just to hire the best teachers for his students, and he will find the money in the budget. This year alone QIRT has applied for 33 financial grants, and seven other teachers trained by Manalo assist in the seemingly endless work of grant writing.

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.”

The most common word used to describe the way students feel about QIRT is “family.” Teachers say it is increasingly difficult to get students to leave the building at the end of the day. They scramble to find activities or tasks to do in the classrooms afterschool.

However, buy-in from the students’ actual families has yet to catch up, and QIRT’s outreach efforts to the Far Rockaway community are often described as a “work in progress.” To teachers, their class parents represent the biggest obstacle to their efforts with students, and have remain largely unchanged.

Apathy is not the problem. Some parents work two or three jobs. Others who are undocumented are afraid of coming to the school, a problem that has been exacerbated since the presidential election with rumors of Immigration Customs Enforcement raids in traditionally safe spaces, like schools.

When a rumor began circulating about ICE raids, Manalo saw the population of ELL students drop off. He printed flyers with information about student’s immigration rights and circulated them during classes. The also had individual conversations to assuage student fears after the election. “I want them to have faith in the system,” said Manalo, “I want them to know that the safest place they can be is in school.”

QIRT is now applying its no-broad strokes method of directing services to specific groups of students to its adult community. The school partnered with the office of adult education to offer courses they recognize a specific need for, like adult English language learning and professional courses. It now hosts a Cisco technology certification course on the weekends that are popular with working parents. QIRT also provides immigration clinics to their ELL families.

If there is a solution that Manalo believes can help the community to engage with the school and students to achieve, he said he will find a way. “He was always like that,” said Figueroa, who knew Manalo when they were both teachers at Lehman. “Always ahead of the game, trying to bring in new ideas from the outside. The only thing that’s changed is the suit. And the grey hair, like Obama.”

Manalo walks through the hallways of QIRT periodically throughout the day, dropping in to classes and speaking with his students. (Photo: Madison Darbyshire)

Manalo admitted there is an emotional toll to taking on so much of his students’ burdens. Knowing who is going home to a house without electricity or water, or leaves school to clock in to an all-night job, a student at risk of failing the Regents exam — again, or who has been lying about having a place to stay and has been sleeping on the subway. These things weigh on his mind in the off hours, however few he may have after 12-hour days at QIRT.

He is prone to forgetting it’s 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 their 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, when his work is through, he might sit in the back of a classroom or sneak down to the daycare center for their teenage mothers to see the babies. It reminds him of what he is working towards. He gains strength from the stories of his students.

“When you hear what the refugee kids go through, it’s humbling,” he said, of the large population of Central American refugees that have landed in the Rockaway’s, and to QIRT for it’s reputation as a welcoming school for ELL students. “It makes you want to do better because of it.”

Bessie is from El Salvador and her mother wears a tracking bracelet placed on immigrant parents caught crossing the Mexican border with children. She has come to school every day for the weeks since her return, but she told Ms. Figueroa that she is still working part time. Ms. Figueroa tried to watch over Bessie as she transitioned back to the classroom, as she does for many of her students.

The ELL graduation rate at QIRT has improved, but remains low, at 55 percent. Mr. Manalo has worked with teachers to design a schedule to for students who are at risk of dropping out to support their families. He put all of the ELL students together in an English class to build vocabulary and prevent them from falling behind. He moved lunch to the end of the school day; the second to last period. Many ELL students have the last period of the day free so they can eat a free lunch and go straight to work without having to miss class. But still he is haunted by the memories of students, like a boy named Moses Ochoa who was smart and kind, who had to make a choice between school and work, and chose their jobs.

He often eats dinner at the diner in Long Island where two of his ELL 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.

There is a silver starfish pin that Manalo wears on his lapel, a symbol of the story popular with educators. It is a parable of saving individuals in the face of impossible odds, when it would be easier to walk away. But Manalo has found a second, equally important, meaning for wearing the pin.

“A starfish can’t move itself with just one leg,” he said. “For a starfish to move, all the legs have to move. A school doesn’t move because a principal moves it. A school moves because everything moves.”