At a young age, Carl Vincent Manalo knew what he wanted: to become a teacher.
He was amazed at the love and compassion his own teachers made him feel the moment he entered the American school system at the age of 10 as an immigrant coming from the Philippines after spending a year in Guam.
Then he got a full-tuition scholarship in college and he faced a crossroad: his parents wanted him to take up another course so he learned to compromise. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he studied human and organizational development. He double majored in English and minored in Art, two things that he really felt passionate about.
He went into human resources after college, this was after 9/11 and he realized he wanted to work with people instead of working for a big corporation. He joined the International Rescue Committee where he worked on refugee relief interviewing people and sending them to different refugee camps all over the world.
Then he realized he was still at a desk so he started volunteering, being a writing coach. That was when he felt he wanted to become a teacher, which is what he wanted to do from the start. On a subway ride home, he saw an ad for the New York City Teaching Fellows, which offered an option to become a New York City public school teacher. He eventually enrolled at Fordham University for his masters in education for a step closer to his dream.
“I fell in love with it. My heart was there. I wanted to work with kids directly. I flourished and I realized that I was really passionate about it,” Carl shared. “I wanted to make sure that the kids learned the wonderful things that I love and it wasn’t just about them loving literature like I did, it was starting to become about social justice, about knowing what they don’t have and making sure that they get the quality education they need and that they are prepared.”
As a teacher, he learned that there needed to be a better leadership and when he became a leader, he needed to even be better as a leader and he needed to fill the gaps that were there.
At the age of 35, Carl Vincent Manalo became the principal of Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology.
Prior to 2014, the school was one of the worst performing schools in the city.
The Far Rockaway High School has always had a really bad reputation especially in the 90s and early 2000s, Carl said. It shut down as a school and new schools cropped up in its place.
This school has had a lot of turnover when it comes to staff and principals. Mr. Manalo is the fourth principal of the school in five years time and he is now sitting as the longest-serving principal as he enters his fourth year.
It is because of those turnovers that the school got its bad rep. Graduation rates fluctuated, on his first year as principal, the school had a graduation rate of 55 percent.
“That was rough, and it was a sign of a school on its way down,” he shared. “It was about changing the culture and about how the students and teachers felt and how welcome they felt. He made sure that there are processes and systems that worked.”
The school went from 55 to 70 percent graduation rate in a year and this year, they were up to 80 percent. His ultimate goal is to bring both attendance and graduation rates to 90 percent.
“It has been an exponential growth. We kept watching the data and see how our kids were doing. We knew that we were going to rise, and at least there was a big hope,” Manalo added.
There was no secret recipe. The school officials just began to look at each and every individual kid and what they needed and making sure that there were adults that cared about each one of the kids.
“It was big team effort. We huddle and talk about each individual kid and we have this thing called “Ten Minute Kid Talk Protocol” where teachers raise certain kids that they may have an issue with, whether it was attendance drop or grades started plummeting or kids just having a hard time,” Manalo said.
The Principal’s Office was no longer a place the students didn’t want to go. Manalo made sure that his office was a safe space for every single student in the school and it was not just a place where rowdy and unruly kids are reprimanded.
“What you learn about being Filipino is hospitality,” Manalo said. “It is the biggest thing I remember.”
And how exactly does Filipino hospitality get in the picture?
“It has always been something ingrained in my heart that Filipinos do, I always have snacks or tea or coffee so when kids come in, it is a way to bond and break the ice and a way for them to understand that when you feed somebody, you love them and you care about them,” he said. “It is a way for me to show them that this is a safe place and there’s a little bit of comfort whether it’s tea, which is also calming.”
Manalo takes advantage of the fact that he is a young school principal and one way or another, his youth connects him to the kids.
“I think I will always be young at heart. I am always pretty aware of what happens and what they do. The job keeps you very young,” he said. “I think because I have all this energy and I have a lot of ideas and they just keep pouring in.”
He gets to show the kids in school that he cares and what he feels and shows are genuine and authentic caring.
“One thing kids are very good at is smelling BS. They can tell it to your face when you are being fake. They know if you really care. They’ll tell you and they have no filters sometimes, they’ll tell you about what they really feel for you at that moment,” he said.
Bottomline is there is good feeling all around, from the teachers to the staff to the students.
“Kindness is a big factor in this school. You want kids to feel good coming here. Sometimes we have to kick them out because they want to be here late and you don’t know what kids go through at home, whether they have a home or not. Sometimes it is depressing,” he said.
Manalo was born and raised in Quezon City, Philippines. His parents are from Oriental Mindoro and Laguna. His dad worked in Saudi Arabia for five years. Both his parents are now retired and live in Westchester.
In his school, 30% of the student population is comprised of English-language learners while a quarter of the student population are refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.
“I know and understand the whole process of getting into asylum here in the United States. I let people know that refugees are the most vetted people getting into the U.S. They go through years of screening,” he shared. “Our kids that come here were detained in detention centers.”
Reflecting on his own immigrant journey, he shared that it took his mom 16 years before she could get to the U.S. because she kept adding names to the petition. She got married and added his father, then eventually, Carl and his siblings.
“I made a promise to my grandmother that time that I would still keep Tagalog so I know a little bit, like a 10-year-old would. Mababaw ang tagalog ko,” he said laughing.
Within the past year, news that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were picking up undocumented immigrants in Queens broke.
“My kids were scared, some of them were not coming to school. Their parents or aunts wouldn’t let them go to school for fear of being picked up by ICE agents. They were asking me, ‘Am I going to get deported?’ It was tough. There were reports on Facebook and local news that there were ongoing ICE raids across the city and we didn’t know if it was fake news or not,” Manalo said.
He told them that as long as they were within the school vicinity, they are safe.
“The wonderful part about New York City Department of Education and being a sanctuary city is that we have a Mayor and a Chancellor who want to protect the kids. And I want my kids to understand that the safest space they can be is in the school. That I know what their rights are and I teach them what their rights are,” he said.
Manalo is the adviser of the school’s LGBT organization.
“Students need people to look up to or they need somebody to relate to,” he said as he recalled the time in high school when they started their school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
It took a brave woman teacher to be their adviser and did so despite the fact that she was called names by her fellow teachers then.
That is why he didn’t hesitate to accept when he was asked to help the school’s LGBT organization and take on the position of adviser.
A key insight he found out when he talked with the members of the organization is the inherent fear among some of them to come out to their families because they are scared to be kicked out of their homes and become homeless.
They raised funds for a homeless shelter that caters to LGBT youth by taking over the school’s cafeteria for a few days.
“It’s about timing. It is your prerogative,” Manalo said about coming out. “I tell this to my kids all the time – ‘You are not being untrue to yourself if you are not necessarily out to your parents.’”
For Manalo’s case, he was outed.
“I wasn’t like I’m gonna seat my parents down and we’re going to have a talk. It happened. They had a hard time. It’s about concern, about knowing that I am safe and happy as a person. It’s not something that we talk about outwardly, it’s just there,” he shared.
Now, four years into the job and there is an upswing at QIRT – from enrollment to attendance to graduation rates. He is hoping that the growth continues.
He is thankful to the staff and teachers who are his allies in helping every single student in the school. Learning, for him is a two-way process and he appreciates the lessons he has learned from the students.
Among his biggest lessons are also his biggest source of pride.
“The kids have the biggest hearts. They have the most amazing grit and persistence. No matter how tough it gets, kids bounce back really well,” he shared. “Every year we have graduation and you can see in the kids’ faces, some of them are the first in their family to graduate high school, the first to be able to go to college. That’s a powerful thing.”