Midtown Kingston native Adrian Manuel proves doubters wrong, turns schools — and lives — around

Adrian Manuel during his time as Kingston High School principal. (Photo by Dan Barton)

Adrian Manuel, who graduated from Kingston High School in 1996, is a school principal and educator whose success at turning around failing inner-city schools earned him kudos in the national media. Over the course of a decade, he transformed a middle school in the South Bronx into an innovative, interdisciplinary, high-performing model school, an accomplishment featured in the book Cage Busting Leadership by education policy maven Frederick Hess.

Manuel then became the first African-American principal at his Kingston alma mater, instituting a set of interventions during his three-year tenure that were key in raising the graduation rate. Then he headed a charter boarding school in inner-city Washington, D.C. Under his leadership, kids from impoverished families thrived; more than 90 percent of them graduated and attended four-year colleges. The school’s success story was covered on 60 Minutes and Oprah, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama paid visits.

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Pretty impressive, especially considering that in high school Manuel was told he wasn’t “college material,” he recalled in a phone interview from his home on Long Island, where he lives with this wife and two kids. He is currently executive director of an elementary charter school in Queens.

As a young child, Manuel attended four local elementary schools, in part “because they wanted to put me in special reading and my parents weren’t going to allow the school to stigmatize me .… I was hyperactive and had a speech lisp, and I wasn’t engaged.”

A few teachers saw his talent and potential. One teacher at KHS pulled him aside and told him he deserved to be in an AP class. He acknowledged that I wouldn’t fit in, but said, “I think you can show them something and prove them wrong.” Another teacher told him he’d be either be a master criminal leader or a great, successful person.”

Manuel grew up on Franklin Street to an African-American father and Greek-American mother. 

He was close friends with kids who were selling drugs and associated with gangs and gun violence. “I would rather hang out with kids in my neighborhood,” he said. “My best friend dropped out in ninth grade and was later incarcerated. Many of my friends in Kingston are still struggling.”

Manuel and his two sisters had parents who valued education and encouraged them. “My dad always said to us, You’re going to college,” he said. While both his sisters dropped out of high school, each went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One runs a tech start-up in Philadelphia and the other is a teacher. 

“I was fortunate in that my parents were very literate. We had books. My dad had The New York Times, and he’d say, Read this article and tell me about it in 20 minutes.” In Midtown he was able to take advantage of the library up the street and the Boys and Girls Club, which was a safe place with positive adults and a youth mentor.

His dad had earned a scholarship to attend Brown University but was unable to attend after his mother died of breast cancer in his senior year of high school and his father was institutionalized for depression. Instead, Manuel chose to stay home to care for his younger siblings. He joined the military and worked in medical labs at Kingston High School.

One’s environment and socio-economic status “is a huge influencer and destiny predictor,” Manuel said. “My dad made it clear we are biracial growing up in America, and it would be hard to do xyz because of how we look. There was no generation of wealth or social capital to build on. We were a few generations from slavery, and my grandmother was an example of the many black women dying of breast cancer at a higher rate than others.” 

After graduating from New York University, Manuel taught at a school in the South Bronx for four years while earning two master’s degrees, in education and organizational management, at night. “I started a bunch of specialized programs in my school and was accepted into a special program at the NYC Leadership Academy that was a fast-track to becoming a principal.” 

How did he turn around the failing middle school in the South Bronx? “We were very non-traditional and innovative,” he explained. “We gave each kid a laptop and personalized learning and brought in the arts for inter-disciplinary learning. We did huge work around emotional learning for adolescents and restorative practice. Our teachers taught for four days each week and had a full day for planning and collaboration. I even taught a class once a week for the most disengaged boys on young men’s leadership.”

What he did worked. After a decade, he said, “we were considered high-performing and had huge amount of growth on the standard exams.”

But the emphasis was never on teaching to the test. Rather, “our students developed a real passion for leadership. We had Socratic seminars. We had a large population of English language learners, and while other schools were buying programs for tutoring, we started a filmmaking class in which each student got a flip video camera and created a film on a social issue in their community. Just by doing interviews and editing the film, the kids learned a lot of literacy. We built a curriculum where the kids were inspired and could follow their passion in learning. Such a strategy was seen as risky, and we were fortunate in that it paid off quickly.”

At KHS, Manuel felt his ability to effect change was more limited. He blames the school board. “I didn’t feel I got the most traction with Kingston school district board members,” he said. “I wanted to bring KHS into the 21st century, since it wasn’t that different from when I was there 14 years before.” There was a window of innovation, and there were a million things he wanted to do, he added. “And there was a ceiling. I was limited by the local politics of the board.”

His message is that citizens need to get more involved and vote in school-board elections, which typically attract a very small turnout. “People are disengaged, and the election is not tied to other kinds of elections,” which further discourages turnout.

The boarding school in Washington, D.C. offered him “a lot more autonomy to do innovative things.” Like the school in Queens that he heads now, it was a charter school, which he said have the advantage of being “public schools with private management.” We’re educating kids using those public funds free from the constraints of politics, which had caused those districts to fail kids for decades,” he said. 

While working as the headmaster at the school in D.C., Manuel earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, did consulting work on the side, and helped his wife care for their newborn.
When he got his doctorate from Penn, his dad was very moved. His dad started to cry. “Do you remember all those times we switched your schools because I refused to have them put you in a special program?” he asked. “I never wanted you to doubt yourself, and now you’re out there giving back and I’m very proud of you.’”

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