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Jim Manly: Parents Deserve the Best Customer Service on the Planet

Monday, February 13, 2012 - 02:59 PM

In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.

To work for the Success Academy Charter Schools is to be both target and instigator of the ever-churning battle in New York over the direction of the public schools. Jim Manly has been in the line of fire the longest of any Success principal since Eva S. Moskowitz, the hard-charging former city councilwoman, founded the network in 2006.

Ms. Moskowitz has become the lightening rod for the charter school controversy in New York, with her relentless push to expand the network to 40 schools, and each new opening has unleashed opposition, anger and lately law suits. (Earlier this month, a lawsuit was filed to try to stop the Success network from opening a school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, which would be the 12th in the network.) But parents who send their children to her schools applaud the philosophy, which Mr. Manly describes as “joyful rigor — that you can have a balance of creative, critical thinking and high standards. That you can love school and still achieve at high levels.” The school has a longer day and school year for its scholars, as they call their students.

Mr. Manly, 45, started his work in education as a teacher at a Harlem middle school. His school, Harlem Success Academy 2, has 625 students in grades K-4, and plans to expand to eighth grade. He is a survivor of both the many skirmishes involving charter schools -- and his network in particular -- and of the hands-on, relentless style of Ms. Moskowitz. His salary is $140,000 a year. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

You were a teacher in two more traditional public schools in New York City, and then worked for Teach for America and now the Success network, with people who have changed modern education. What have you learned from your experience working closely with Eva Moskowitz and Wendy Kopp and other reformers?

A.

I see a lot of similarities in Eva and Wendy’s drive and determination. There are so many people willing to say you’re going too fast or you’re being too bold or too aggressive and these things are incremental. For me there’s a real urgency to this work. Both Eva and Wendy have been very helpful in making me understand that if you continue to listen to everybody’s take-it-slow approach, we won’t be there at the end of the day. They’ve been big influences on me in terms of how I want our teachers to view their work with their scholars, that there isn’t always tomorrow. That this is day we’ve been given. Some people say, give the public schools more time. We’ve been hearing this for generations. These kids don’t have more time. They don’t get to say I’ll wait five or six more years for this school to get fixed. By then they’ll be in eighth grade, reading at a third grade level.

Q.

You’re a very demanding school, but surely not all your kids will meet up to your standards. How do you deal with failure compared to how other schools might deal with it?

A.

I think it does matter that they chose us. In Harlem, over half the parents in District 5 apply to be in our school, so it’s not like we’re creaming. We have an established product. If a child isn't doing well, we say to the parents, listen, this is a true ticket for your child to redefine their academic expectations. This is an incredibly rare opportunity, and you’re blowing it. Your kid is coming to school at 12:30 in the afternoon, or they’re missing three days in a row for no other reason than you felt tired or you didn’t feel like coming to school. We can’t throw anybody out, but we sit parents down and say there is a waiting list a mile long of people who want in to this school, and you have this spot and you’re throwing it away. You’re not bringing your kid in on time, you’re not making sure they do their homework, you’re allowing them to disrupt lessons. We need your help. We see some pretty remarkable turnarounds. The parents will say you’re right. I hear your message. I'm messing this up.

I’ve had some parents drop out, which is heartbreaking -- 'This is too much, I can’t handle it.'

Q.

How different is this school from other Success schools? In other words, how much are you allowed to bring your own individual style to a school in this network?

A.

It is standardized. Eva wants it that way. But Eva is open to seeing other ideas. If I bring something to her, she almost always says, absolutely, go give it a try and if it works we’ll roll it out everywhere. And frankly most of our other principals are 15 to 20 years younger than I am. I’ve been here since the school opened so we have a very strong connection with families here. Our school got the bulk of the protests when we started up, more even than Harlem Success Academy 1. We had people picketing our front door and kindergartners couldn't walk in. Just awful stuff, but it really bonded our families in a deep way to our school, there was some element of feeling like we were the Little Rock 9, some parents feel like, 'I finally have a school in my neighborhood that works.' But I do feel that it sets it apart, that I as the principal have been here since the beginning.

Q.

You seem to know a lot of your kids’ names.

A.

I get a binder at the start of the year where we take every kid's picture and I sit down and my daughter helps me and I just work on their names until I have every single one of them. And I go down first thing every morning and I shake every scholar's hand and I say good morning by their name.

Q.

What difference do you think this makes?

A.

At some of these protest hearings where we had to go argue for space, our parents would get up and they would say, 'I went to school for 12 years, 13 years in New York City and there wasn’t an administrator who ever knew my name. Mr. Manly knows my child, knows how they’re doing.' And it really made an impact on me. This is important and I need to make sure that I get to know each of these little kids. I tell parents, 'you deserve the best customer service on the planet. We have your most prized possessions, more important than your iPod, your car. This is the customer service that should outshine anything else. We have your child.' I pride myself on knowing who your kid is, figuring out who they are as a learner. And providing them with the best service.

Q.

Are you at this school for the long haul?

A.

I made a commitment to parents who started with us the first year, 'My plan is to be with your kids through 8th grade.' We’re starting middle school here next year. My goal is to be K-8 principal for those kids and then maybe we can look at other opportunities within the Success Network.

Q.

What about teacher burnout? You ask a lot of your teachers. We saw it in the book "Class Warfare," where one of the Success teachers, Jessica Reid, left mid-year because the work is so demanding.

A.

It’s one of our bigger problems. I don’t know that it’s quite as bad as we got featured in "Class Warfare." I don’t think she’s the typical case; I have lots of folks who have managed to be here four, five years and we’re getting better at figuring that out. We're continually trying to figure out ways for people to be more successful here and to support them for the long haul. We have a lot of folks who are 27, 28 years old and getting engaged. I really want to be upfront with them about my life. I have two kids. It’s a big deal that they see that not all principals are 31 and working til 7. I go home early for my daughter’s plays. I go home to coach my son’s basketball team. If you work smartly you can do that. I’m often clearing people out of here at 6 o'clock.

Q.

So your teachers aren't staying until all hours of the night?

A.

I've tried to teach them that you should be taking care of yourself regardless, and I don't want them here til 6:30. I've felt like that's often where we went wrong. When I first worked for Teach for America that was a rite of passage. People would see that Wendy stayed til 1 o'clock and then they would say, I was here til 11:30. For me that's like a failure.
I don't look at that as a badge of courage.

Q.

How often do you see Eva?

A.

Once a week at least. About once every other week she comes and does a tour with me. She'll focus in. She might say, 'let's go see fourth grade read-aloud.' She'll debrief with me, what did I see, what did I see, what am I happy about, what am I worried about. She takes a very active role in the teaching and learning aspect. We also have weekly meetings with all the leaders.

I feel that part of my role is to be the eternal optimist. I remind her of what we have accomplished already. I say let's not forget to celebrate all the incredible things we have done and then she laughs and say you’re right. She's really good at making me never be complacent, that even though we got 75 percent of the kids to pass the test, she'll constantly say, what about the 25 percent, what did we do wrong?

Q.

Can you tell her she’s wrong?

A.

You can. I’m more comfortable doing it than some of the other leaders who have been there less time. You need to be very well prepared with arguments and she’s going to battle back. She may not agree with you right then. We’ll go back and forth on an issue, like changing the math program. And I'll walk out of there thinking, 'boy, I didn't move her an inch.' And then a day later we'll get an e-mail, 'Like what you had to say. Want you to try it out in your third grade, give me a report in three weeks on how it's going. I'm going to come see it in four weeks.'

We ended up switching the entire math program, and it was rolled out just that way.

Q.

I told myself that I wouldn't treat you like the spokesman for the reform movement, but you seem to see yourself that way.

A.

I do understand there are other issues, like job security and pensions that are real issues that that deserve an adult discussion. But at the same time, they're saying here's this evil empire trying to privatize schools? No, we're not. We’re just trying to do this the right way for kids who for so long have been denied a quality education. Don’t close us down. Don’t make it impossible for kids to have an opportunity that they could only have dreamed about a few years ago. If they could come here they would see. We are getting dramatically different results. Sure, you could explain away 5 percentage points to parents being a little more motivated. But it's not even close. We pass 75 percent of our kids in the third grade test. The co-located school below us passed 22 percent. It's not even in the area code. It’s a dramatic, dramatic difference. I’ve become more passionate about it. This should be more widespread.

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